Hermeneutics 101 – What is Everlasting Hell?: Eternal Punishments and Timeless Tortures

Aἰώνιον Punishment

Matthew 25:31-46RSV-CE

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – These terrifying words of our lord are one of many scriptural passages commonly invoked to prove that the mainstream understanding of everlasting punishment and perpetual torments is clearly and explicitly taught by scripture.

Now, as has been discussed at length and in great detail by other people far more learned than me, the original Greek is not quite as clear cut as the English translation on this issue. In Greek, the original passage is simply ambiguous, and not necessarily as scary as it might at first appear. To summarise: the Greek word αἰώνιον, commonly translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, more literally translates to “of the coming age”. As such, a far more literal translation of Matthew 25:46 reads “And they will go away into the punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into the life of the age to come.” Note that a literal translation such as this says absolutely nothing about the duration of the eternal punishment or the eternal life. The life may last forever; it may be temporary. So too with the everlasting punishment. The verse simply does not specify any durations.

everlasting hellIt is true that αἰώνιον can be translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, however these two options do not exhaust the translational range of this word. There are other alternatives, which may arise in diverse contexts. As such, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that we could employ a literal translation so that αἰώνιον does not mean “eternal” in Matthew 25:46.

So much for the Greek. When arguing theology with a protestant who dogmatically follows the historical-critical method of hermeneutics, this argument can be employed to great effect. However following this line of argument with a knowledgeable Catholic might not have quite the same impact. As discussed previously on this blog, Catholics give just as much authority and weight to translations of scripture as they give to the original manuscripts written in the original languages. As such, a Catholic cannot simply dismiss the English translation of Matthew 25:46 with the wave of a historical-critical hand.

Catholics are stuck with an authoritative, magisterially approved translation of scripture which undeniably reads “everlasting punishment”. What are we Catholics who subscribe to the gospel of universal salvation to do?

Experience and Reality of Everlasting Punishment

So eschatalogical punishment is in some sense “everlasting”: what sense could it be? Assuming that the gospel message of universal salvation is true rules out the idea that the everlasting punishment of Hell is “objectively” everlasting. This would be a contradiction. Something has to give: either we abandon the gospel and resign ourselves to the depressing notion that there will be people who never make it to heaven, or we find a way to reinterpret the passage in question in order to harmonise it with the gospel message.

Everlasting PunishmentI would like to propose a way of understanding this passage which does not contradict the gospel: What if “eternal punishment” is not understood as an objective reality, but is instead understood as a description of a subjective experience? To elaborate: What if – in reality – the eternal punishment of the damned really does come to an end, and yet what that everlasting punishment actually feels like to someone who is experiencing it involves a sensation of timelessness and eternity? Those of you who have had a bad psychedelic trip before potentially know exactly what I am talking about. During a bad trip your sense of time completely dissolves: you do not have an intuitive perception of the passage of time; you feel as if you are stuck in a timeless, eternal, everlasting moment and it feels like Hell. Of course in reality time is indeed still passing by and the trip will eventually come to an end, but in the thick of the action and the heat of the moment you have no understanding of this idea and feel trapped in an eternal prison of terror, pain and suffering. If that’s not a description of Hellish torments I don’t know what is.

This actually makes sense according to traditional theological and philosophical presuppositions. It is widely accepted that there is no time in the afterlife. As such the afterlife is presumably experienced as a “timeless” moment, similar to the psychedelic experience. However there is also a firm traditional understanding that despite the lack of time, there is still change in the afterlife. If this were not the case, then it would not be possible to escape purgatory, but it is dogmatic fact that all who enter into purgatory will successfully escape. As such “Eternal punishment” in scripture could very easily be referring to the experience of purgatory.

So what if eternal punishment is just like a bad trip (although perhaps infinitely worse in intensity)? The eternal punishment does not literally “last forever”, it merely is experienced as “timeless”. This is still a completely terrifying prospect, and is not a fate that you would want to wish on anyone, however – unlike the standard understanding of objectively eternal torments – it is completely compatible with the gospel. Why should Hell have the final say? Does this not contradict the good news of the gospel? Hell is everlasting, but Christ can still defeat it and rescue the captives who are detained there. Gehenna is eternal, but God can still bust down the doors and liberate the sinners therein from their slavery to evil, death, and Satan. Hades is timeless, but Jesus can still trample down its gates and free all men from the clutches of sin and rebellion against love.

So timeless punishment is a subjective experience, it is not an objective reality. Christ will still have the victory and all who are cast into the lake of fire will eventually repent through the flames. God will be all in all. Amen

Testimony – Catholic to Universalist

(Go to Part 1: “Agnostic to Christian”)

Clashing with my Past

It was mid-2014. After my realisation that I was already a Catholic, I begun to do a total practical transition from Protestantism to Catholicism: I stopped attending church at St Barnabas, convinced that it was all false teaching. I slowly stopped attending Credo events and disentangled myself from Credo people. I was still friendly with many of the wonderful people I had met in Credo, for example Poya, Luke Simpson and Timothy Ho, but I did not go out of my way to hang out with them.

During this time I was still on the leadership team of the FOCUS ministry. I began to second guess myself. Should I really be on this team if I am a Catholic? If I believe that the FOCUS team is spreading false teaching and teaching a counterfeit gospel, am I really comfortable contributing to that?

61UgA-K7sDL._UY395_[1]One day I brought some rosary beads along to a FOCUS event, and was showing them to people and talking about how they help you to pray. I did not actually know how to pray the rosary at the time, but I was just looking for some way to affirm my identity as a Catholic. This caught the attention of Helen Yim, who recognised the rosary beads as a typically Catholic accessory, even though she didn’t understand their significance or what they are used for. She was completely unimpressed.

She sent me a text message saying “Alex, you can’t bring those ‘rose beads’ to FOCUS again. If you do, I will have to take you off the leadership team. Salvation is found IN CHRIST ALONE” I responded with “Of course salvation is found in Christ alone. What has that got to do with Catholicism or rosary beads? Catholics are in complete agreement. Besides, I’m resigning from my position anyway; I don’t feel comfortable serving alongside people who believe in heresy any more.” Helen clearly was a victim of the anti-Catholic indoctrination and propaganda that is so rampant among Evangelicals. She was probably convinced that I was flirting with heresy and my salvation was in question.

Early Catholic Days

I signed up to the UTS Catholic society and integrated myself into one of their small groups. I found the Catholic small groups to be an intriguing contrast to the Credo bible studies. The Catholic society really was much smaller and more incognito than Credo, with almost no noticeable presence on Campus. During the small groups, we would discuss saints and church documents, rather than reading the bible. This was in direct contrast to Credo, which had a singular focus on the scriptural text in both small groups and public talks. At first I found this very jarring, as my evangelical formation had indoctrinated me into the erroneous idea that Christianity is primarily about studying the bible. I later found out that Catholics place much more emphasis on Liturgical participation and the multi-faceted life of prayer.

I started going to Sunday mass at St Benedict’s, Broadway; a Catholic church only a few steps away from St Barnabas. I was introduced to what seemed at the time to be an intriguing quirk of the Catholic religion: daily mass. Every now and then I attended daily mass and confession. I quickly wrangled with the idea that there is a “Sunday Obligation” and that the acceptable times to fulfil this obligation are any time on a Sunday or the Saturday night vigil.

high-mass[1].jpgFor about the first two years of being a Catholic, mass was entirely cryptic and impenetrable to me. I had not memorised the structure or the responses, and the language employed in the prayers was so high and lofty that it may as well have been Latin, even though it was English. Some times it actually was Latin.

The Sunday service really didn’t appeal to me as much as the old protestant services did. The homilies were cryptic and not at all evangelical. The Priest never actually explained the bible readings, and would instead focus on moral exhortation. The sense of community in the parish was practically non-existent. At St Benedict’s there was a super evangelical Singaporean girl called Priscilla Liem who managed to hold together a basic sense of fellowship among some of the students and young workers, but it really was nothing compared to the spontaneous and naturally loving community that I had experienced in my time hanging out with Protestants. The parish really seemed dead: most people would just stay for the liturgy, receive communion and go straight home. Some people would even leave before the final blessing or during the communion hymn.

This was not something that I had anticipated during my internet research into Catholicism. I began to feel isolated and disillusioned, and started to have doubts about whether I had made the right decision to return to Catholicism and renounce Protestantism. However I decided to stick it out and keep going to mass and confession because Catholicism simply made so much sense on paper.

During this time I still had the thought hovering over my head that perhaps the Orthodox church is the true church rather than the Catholic church. However as time went by I began to ponder the role of the Papacy. It became clear to me that Jesus appointed Peter as the leader of the apostles and the church, and therefore whoever succeeds Peter inherits that position as leader. I realised that the way to identify the one true church was first to look for the Pope, and then to look for the bishops who are in communion with that Pope. Once I understood this principle, I begin to intellectually feel much more comfortable in my choice of Catholicism over Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I retained a great respect for Eastern theology and it had a large influence over my thinking in the subsequent months.

reformation-conference[1].jpgUnfortunately it was around about this time that I had a minor falling out with Alex Macdonald, and we fell out of regular contact for some time. I had massive respect for Alex Macdonald, and he had somewhat mentored me through my post-cult early Christian days. He had lent me books and been extremely generous with his time, reading the bible with me and having deep and meaningful chats. Naturally I wanted to share my Catholic journey with him. When I met up with him, we ended up getting into violent debates. Alex was obviously very concerned at my movement towards Catholicism. I suspect he felt as though he had invested a lot in me and was a tad distraught that I was drifting away towards something he didn’t really understand or agree with. Our arguments were passionate, as we both shared our core convictions with each other. Alex was convinced that the Catholic church had gone astray in the middle ages and that the reformation had got the church “Back on track”. I was convinced that sacred tradition and an infallible magisterium were essential components of the one true church and it would be inappropriate and catastrophic to dispense with them.

Me and Alex went our separate ways, and I haven’t been in regular contact with him ever since. I catch up with him sporadically and he has since mellowed out and accepts me as the Catholic that I am. I of course still have tremendous respect for him and wish him nothing but the best.

Relationship Adventures

virgin1[1].jpgDuring this time, I had also been maintaining a long distance relationship with Mindy. We had incredibly long chats on facebook messenger, and sent very long emails to each other. We were incredibly open and honest with each other. Perhaps a little too honest. Mindy revealed some truly shocking things about her past and I was totally open about my virginity and insecurities surrounding sex. She didn’t realise I was a virgin. I had been pulling the Chinese girls off their boyfriends left right and centre during China mission so she obviously just assumed I had a lot of sexual experience in my pre-Christian days. Admittedly I had tried to cultivate this misconception in a spirit of “fake it till you make it” – a remnant of my pick up artist days. But I figured honesty was the best policy. I thought to myself, “If she thinks I’m going to be a God in the sack and we end up getting married, how disappointed is she going to be when she finds out that I’m an inexperienced virgin?” With this thought in mind, I decided to drop the “Virgin” bombshell on her. She took it extremely well, although admitted that she was surprised and that I had successfully fooled her into thinking otherwise. She reassured me that it was nothing to worry about.

Eventually, Mindy managed to get me to swap out my old Nokia 3315 for a slightly better model which had the capacity to run Whatsapp. This was a crazy learning experience for me. My relationship failures from my high school days had taught me to distrust internet chat software, so I had some psychological barriers to overcome in order to engage with favicon[1]Mindy in this way. Whatsapp was on 24/7 from then on out, and I was receiving a constant stream of messages from Mindy. This was unknown territory for me: as an introvert who generally shunned technology, being connected in this way was a somewhat scary prospect which would take some time to adjust to. I was used to spending most of my waking hours alone, in the company of myself, enjoying being with my own thoughts. But all of a sudden I was having to put up with this constant barrage of messages from Hong Kong. But of course, I was in love, so I was willing to give it a go in order to keep some fire in a long distance relationship.

During our many facebook and email sessions, I dropped the “Catholic” bombshell on her as well. I informed her that I was thinking of converting to Catholicism and attempted to explain some of the reasons why. I assured her that the prospect of converting does not appeal to me because I am quite happy as an Evangelical, nevertheless I feel compelled to investigate the Catholic claims. I was secretly hoping that she would come along for the ride and investigate Catholicism with me, by my side. I was hoping that she would have an open mind, like me, and be able to overcome her prejudices and entrenched bias against Catholicism. Unfortunately this was not the case, and this fundamental difference in personality and outlook led to relationship disaster further down the line.

Mindy had some reservations about my becoming Catholic. She didn’t actually understand what Catholicism was all about: It was a scary and foreign concept to her. The only things she knew about Catholicism were what she had learned at CBS and what her Evangelical ministers had told her, and this was obviously not going to be a friendly assessment of the faith. I ended up hiding just how Catholic I had become since she had last seen me. It was an easy thing to hide in the context of a long distance relationship: I just simply had to avoid talking about my conversion.

Mindy Returns to Sydney

10404324_10153064836764813_5048957769984912660_n[1].jpgEventually December rolled around again. Mindy was scheduled to return to Sydney for her graduation ceremony at UNSW. She brought her whole family, complete with Godparents. I had not seen her since China Mission six months ago, and was incredibly excited to meet her face to face again. We organised to meet up at the AFES headquarters near UNSW just prior to her graduation ceremony. When I finally got to see her in person again, I had forgotten how much shorter than me she was and it sort of threw me off. Nevertheless she looked gorgeous and I was so happy to finally see her in person.

I sat with Mindy’s family and watched her graduation ceremony, and then afterwards her family left us alone and we went to dinner with some of Mindy’s friends from UNSW. The following few days I spent hanging out with Mindy and her family. We went to the fish markets, I visited the flat they were staying in at Zetland and brought an entire lobster in my backpack for dinner, we visited the opera house. I invited Mindy to an evening art exhibition put on by some friends from UTS housing. It was great to finally see her and be in each other’s presence.

Mindy’s family went back to China, but Mindy remained in Sydney on holiday. NTE 2014 was rapidly approaching and both me and Mindy had signed up and were looking forward to it. I recall when it finally arrived. All of Mindy’s friends were advising her not to get into a relationship with me seeing as I was flirting with Catholicism so much. Mindy had a catch up with Helen Yim, and I can’t help but speculate that Helen told her in extremely strong words to break up and stay away from me. There was a moment during free time when we were sitting outside on some grass. It was a great opportunity to kick back and relax in each other’s presence, but Mindy had other plans.

hail-mary1[1].jpgShe started interrogating me about my Catholicism, asking me why I’m not satisfied with the Bible and why I need to become Catholic. Why couldn’t I just stay as an evangelical? The discussion slowly heated up and eventually both of us were feeling high strung and emotional. It finally got to a point where Mindy strongly implied that Catholics are not Christians and it was the final straw and ultimate insult for me. I stomped off in exasperation and sorrow. The next session was starting, but I didn’t go. I just sat at the edge of the oval, praying. It was at this time that I prayed my first Hail Mary as an act of spiritual defiance against the bigoted and ignorant Protestants who surrounded me. This was a crucial turning point in my Catholic journey.: I had finally opened my heart to beloved Mary, even if in a spirit of defiance and martyrdom rather than love and devotion.

Following NTE there was a short mission trip. I went to Sadlier in western Sydney with some of the Credo UTS crew, while Mindy went up to Port Macquarie with all the people from the Cantonese FOCUS church at UNSW. We stayed in communication during our respective missions, and Mindy invited me to come and visit Port Macquarie once my mission was complete. I caught the train up the coast and arrived at Port Macquarie, where Mindy’s lovely host family picked me up in their big car and drove me to their big house. This turned into a nice little holiday spent with Mindy and her host family, who were incredibly hospitable.

The Holy Grail

We returned to Sydney, and it turned out that Mindy had nowhere concrete lined up where she could stay. She got in contact with Ai, a Japanese girl from UTS FOCUS who lived in one of the other UTS Housing complexes – Bulga Ngurra. Ai was happy to welcome her into her flat, providing a mattress and bedroom in which she could sleep.

However that’s not exactly how things played out. Mindy would spend every second night in my flat staying up late chatting with me and my flatmates. As the clock ticked away, she would propose that it’s far too late to disturb Ai and can’t she just stay with me? It seemed like the easiest thing to do, so I agreed. And of course I still suffered from a desire to be intimate with a girl and was secretly hoping that she would stay.

Naturally, we started to indulge in some serious fornicating. At first I just let her sleep in my bed while I slept on the floor. But one night while we were chatting in the dim light of my red lava lamp, she suddenly rolled off the bed, landed on my chest and started making out with me. This was a pretty exciting and new experience for me and I let myself enjoy it. Things quickly turned extremely sensual, sexual and erotic, without us technically having sex.

Things carried on this way as the days rolled by, and I would sometimes spend all day in my bed with Mindy, just rolling around with her; we were tickling each other, kissing each other all over and physically playing with each other. It was all very fun, but of course there was this terrible guilt gnawing away at me. I intuitively knew I shouldn’t be doing this.

131122232657-sex-couple-feet-bed-super-tease[1].jpgOne day I finally arrived at the destination I had been craving prior to my experimentation with psychedelics: I had sexual intercourse. This was a very strange experience. It was over incredibly quickly and I felt somewhat confused about it afterwards. I had a chat to my psychologist at EIPS the next day in order to attempt to integrate the experience. It really all felt somewhat anticlimactic, and it was honestly nothing like what I had been expecting all these years (Of course, I had a totally warped view of sex thanks to my prior porn addiction; this probably contributed to the emotions I was feeling). I also had a whole bunch of religious guilt getting in the way. It seemed clear to me that I had seriously sinned and I really should have saved this experience for marriage, when I could have properly appreciated it.

The Arguments Begin

During this time spent in my bedroom, we got talking about matters of faith. She still was concerned about my Catholicism, and I was unimpressed with her Protestantism. It was at this time that we had our second serious fight. She was trying to convince me that the bible is the word of God, but the way she was going about it was entirely irrational. She was completely unable to account for the canon, the source of the bible’s authority and so on. I accused her of having blind faith. She accused me of being a “young Christian” and belittled my serious reservations by calling them “young Christian questions”. Her pride was manifest: she thought she was a better Christian than me just because she had grown up in a Christian family and therefore had technically been one longer than I had. This fight was a total yelling match and I’m sure the rest of the people in my flat could hear every detail.

But we were in love, so we were able to push past this fight and continue fornicating, and hanging out during the day. At one stage, when I was dropping her off at Ai’s house in a futile attempt to regain some moral cleanliness in my life, she stopped me and started talking to me in an extremely emotional yet serious tone.

hqdefault[3]“Promise that you will move to Hong Kong after you graduate” she pouted. “Promise me that you will never leave me”: She was threatening to call off the relationship if I don’t move to Hong Kong to be with her ASAP. I was willing, but I didn’t want to commit to such a drastic life change without thinking about it first. But Mindy was relentless: She pulled every string she could think of in order to try and get me to make this crazy promise. She put on as much pressure as she could. Eventually I caved and made the promise. She was satisfied.

Long Distance Again

Mindy’s holiday came to an end and she flew back to Hong Kong. 2015 had arrived.

I had spoken to Helen Yim about my plans for the future and she advised me to enrol in TESOL and learn to teach English. My degree up to that point had been in Information Technology and I absolutely hated it, so I was looking for some sort of exit strategy. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.

crazy-party[1].jpgI begun to talk to Mindy every night on facetime. As well as talking to her non-stop throughout the day on whatsapp. We would call and catch up for hours, which severely interfered with my sleep and had a fatal effect on my mood stability. At the same time, somehow during this semester our flat had been designated as the party flat. Every night until midnight – and sometimes longer – there would be crazy Europeans partying like animals right outside my bedroom door. Half of the flat was keen on the situation, and half of the flat absolutely hated it. It was keeping me up well past a healthy bed time and I had to invest in some uncomfortable ear plugs just to sleep through the night.

During the mid semester break I made a trip to Hong Kong to visit Mindy. Her Grandma was kind enough to let me stay with them in their already overcrowded flat. Naturally, we continued our fornication and intercourse at every opportunity. I was slowly gaining more experience with sex, which made me feel good. But at the same time I was overwhelmed with a crushing guilt, knowing that I really shouldn’t be doing this. I was also terrified at the prospect that Mindy might get pregnant: We never used contraception.

We continued to argue and fight over theological matters during this trip. On the day before I was to return to Sydney, Mindy looked at me with an overcast face and said “I’m not happy with this relationship”, clearly implying that she wanted to break up. I wasn’t having it, and managed to convince her that it’s not all bad and things will work out: A Catholic and a Protestant getting married is totally possible and feasible.

Wedding-Proposal-1c-T-Shirts[1].jpgAt the airport on the day of my departure, I got down on one knee and proposed to her. This wasn’t really as big a deal as it sounds. We were practically already engaged, seeing as we had started the relationship under the proviso that we would be married within two years.

I returned to Sydney and continued studying my diploma in TESOL. News of our “Official” engagement leaked to facebook and all sorts of people who I didn’t even know came up to me and congratulated me.

As the semester came to an end and the mid year break approached, Mindy brought up the promise I had made to her when I was in Sydney. She started putting pressure on me to move to Hong Kong. My doctors, family and psychologist were doing everything they could to convince me that this was a bad idea: In Hong Kong I would be completely cut off from every single support network that I have; no more doctors; no more friends; no more family; no more medicare; no more cheap drugs.

But I wanted to remain a virtuous person who keeps his promises, and so against my better judgement, I gave in to Mindy’s nagging and got ready to depart for Hong Kong. In retrospect, it was incredibly manipulative of Mindy to have made me make this promise in the first place. I was not prepared at all to start a new life in Hong Kong.

The Big Move

My bags were packed. I had a suitcase full of drugs that would last me for months, and another bag loaded with clothes and some books. When I arrived in Hong Kong I had no job and nowhere to live. Mindy’s minister kindly let me stay at his house for a few days while I found my feet.

hongkong[1].jpg

I found myself living in a “Tong Fong” at Tin Shui Wai run by an incredibly dodgy landlord. A Tong Fong is basically a house that has been artificially subdivided into a series of smaller rooms, which are then rented out to poor suckers like me. In my particular Tong Fong, I was living in the kitchen of the flat. My flatmates had to step over me while I was sleeping in order to get their breakfast out of the fridge.

caged-homes[1].jpgYou might be surprised to learn that Tong Fongs are not even the lowest rung on the ladder of Hong Kong housing options. I was spared the fate of living in a “Cage house”: this is basically just a bed in a cage, with a box for you to throw your wallet and passport in while you sleep.

This could not go on for long: my mental state was already pretty shaky, and living in a Tong Fong was not doing anything to help the situation.

I begun to look for a job. I went to an online Hong Kong jobs database and began browsing. I typed “English Teacher” into the search bar and set the category to “Information Technology”. I was incredibly surprised when this actually resulted in a hit: Some English school called “Butterfly milk” was looking for a programmer to come and help them start up a course aimed at teaching technological concepts to children. I thought to myself “This sounds good” and applied for an interview.

The next day I trekked the two stations down the line to Yuen Long, and made my way to this school. In 20 minutes I had conquered the interview and the owner of the school – the half South African, half Cantonese Aaron Mo – was willing to hire me on the spot. I had obviously managed to muster up enough passion for Technology to convince Aaron that I was the real deal.

1200px-YOHO_Town_Phase_1_2011[1].jpgOne of the perks of the job was that it came with relatively comfortable accommodation if I needed it. Aaron’s beautiful girlfriend and assistant, Samantha, took me up for a tour of the flat. The complex was called “YOHO Town”. It was incredibly cramped by Sydney standards, but I could instantly tell that by Hong Kong standards it was luxury living. I asked for the rental price and found out that I would get a great deal: The English school would subsidise over half of the rent because Aaron was planning to use the living room of the flat as a combination office and workshop. I signed up immediately.

When I returned to Tin Shui Wai and attempted to cancel my lease with the owner of the Tong Fong, he wasn’t willing to budge. He wanted to hold onto my bond and two weeks rent and didn’t want to cancel the contract. Mindy got on the phone with him and went into full crazy bitch mode, which freaked him out and forced him to relent and hand over the money.

Life in Hong Kong

I fell into a daily grind: every now and then I would teach English in the school. Most days I would spend programming and building robots up in the flat with another foreign employee – the gorgeous Annika Neumeister from Germany. At the end of the day I would travel on the MTR through the mountains between the New Territories of Hong Kong and Kowloon, so as to meet up with Mindy and go on dates. This happened literally every day, week in and week out. I felt as if I had no time to myself.

Ss._Peter_and_Paul_Church_(Hong_Kong)[1].jpgDuring this time I attended Sunday mass at the local Catholic Church: St Peter and Paul’s, Yuen Long. The congregation consisted almost entirely of Filipino maids and Nigerian workers. It was during my time at this church that I first began to fall in love with Catholic liturgy. The music and singing were heavenly and sublime. The prayers of the mass began to come alive for me and resonate deep within my heart. The prayer of the centurion filled me with zeal and conviction as I repeated it every Sunday: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. I could relate to this prayer on the deepest level: I knew I was a sinner in need of healing, and as I repeated the formula I was always shaking with a strange combination of hope and despair: I thought to myself “I know you can heal me Lord; please, do it!”

Despite the fact that I was friendly with the priests at this church, I didn’t form any relationships with the congregation. We simply couldn’t relate to each other. I was a supposedly “rich” gwai lo, whereas they were all “lower class”.

In contrast to this, each Sunday evening me and Mindy were coming together to visit an English Anglican church on Nathan Road – St Andrews Kowloon. The people at this church were typical Protestant Evangelicals: incredibly warm, friendly and loving. The leadership had all studied in Sydney at Moore College, so the services they delivered felt very familiar and reminded me of my Evangelical days. Despite this warm welcome, I felt a bit unnerved: I was starved for Catholic companionship. I did not want to hang out with heretics. You become the company you keep, and I deeply desired to form some Catholic friendships. These happy Protestants were not what I needed. I became incredibly resistant to attend this church and did not feel happy going to the bible studies that they organised.

10671306_978063365591543_847585719953331907_n[1]As time went by, I really struggled to be productive in my work. I enjoyed teaching English most, and got a greater sense of satisfaction and achievement from this aspect of the job. Whereas when I was stuck behind a computer screen trying to code, my ADHD kicked in and I was simply unable to progress. My personality is also not conducive to “real life” sort of work: I am a very theoretical and academic person; I like to play with ideas and deep concepts; I do not enjoy getting my hands dirty. I reflected upon my work history up to this date and saw the same pattern repeating itself: Even during my time at Cargowise and Macquarie bank, I had struggled to complete the tasks put before me. I simply lacked the interest, passion and competency required to perform in these jobs.

Descent Into Hatred

Now that I was living in Hong Kong, there was not much stopping Mindy from staying at my flat and getting frisky with me on a regular basis. Mindy would often sleep over at my house and we would almost always have sex. At the time I felt guilty and as if it were my fault, but in retrospect I feel comfortable placing the blame entirely on her: I really was trying to stop this sinful behaviour; I was doing my best to prevent Mindy from staying at my flat too late. However whenever I would try to put pressure on her to leave and go home, she would go into pout mode and I would feel guilty and relent, letting her stay and hoping to God that we wouldn’t slip up again. She would basically rape me: She would wait until I had taken my sleeping pills and collapsed on the bed, and then snuggle up close to me and start the kissing. I would just reflexively kiss her back, half asleep. Before you know it our clothes were off and I was pounding her into the headboard while she moaned in ecstasy.

I don’t understand what the appeal was for her: I was practically a zombie while under the influence of these antipsychotic pills. Every time, all I really wanted was for it to be over so that I could go back to sleep. It was painful to stay awake, and yet my carnal sex drive kept me awake enough to perform.

sex-stock100[1].jpgSometimes she would seduce me before I took my pills, and we would engage in wild, extended lovemaking sessions, with lots of sweating, screaming, moaning, spanking and whatever else. It finally got to the point where I was having “Good sex”. Compared to my first time – which was over in seconds and very anticlimactic – this sex was amazing. We would go at it for up to an hour at a time.

I finally had my old wish fulfilled: I had sex on tap. But ironically, I no longer wanted it. I honestly wanted to remain chaste and celibate until marriage. Every time after we slipped up, my trust for Mindy died a little more, and my love started to dissipate. I began to hate her and resent her. I wished she would just piss off and leave me be, rather than constantly engineering situations in which we were going to slip up and fuck.

Every time we slipped up, I would be filled with overwhelming guilt, despair and fear of Hell. Premarital sex has been clearly defined as a mortal sin by the Catholic church: I knew my faith well enough to realise what I was doing. I had to awkwardly drag myself to face to face confession Sunday after Sunday to confess this relentless sin. My relief at being back in the state of grace was only temporary, as it would not be long before me and Mindy were rooting again.

1[1].jpgI suspect that our sexual sins directly lead to a disintegration of the relationship, as I no longer trusted her and found it nearly impossible to love her. Every now and then I would skype Jaison back in Sydney: When he asked how I was going with my porn addiction and other sexual sins, I straight up confessed to him what was happening. He was very concerned and advised me to break up with Mindy. I was extremely resistant to the idea, fooling myself into thinking that we could work things out and it would all be better once we were married. In retrospect, I really should have followed his advice. Perhaps if I had threatened to leave Mindy earlier, she would have made more of an effort to stop screwing me and things would have turned out alright.

A Defiant Gesture

Some time during my Hong Kong stay, we had got in contact with the lead pastor of St Andrew’s – Alex McCoy – and asked if he could help us do some pre-marriage counselling. He readily agreed and we set a date for our first appointment.

Bp_Greg[1].jpgPrior to our appointment, we had been visiting the St Andrew’s Sunday evening service regularly for quite some time. At one of these services, Alex McCoy was performing the Anglican communion rite. He invited everyone to come up and receive the bread and wine with the usual Protestant disclaimer: “If you do not trust Jesus to forgive your sins and save you then please remain in your seat”. As a Catholic I understood that it is inappropriate to receive communion outside of a Catholic liturgy, so I remained in my seat. This action caught the eye of Alex McCoy. After the service had officially concluded, he made a beeline straight to where me and Mindy were sitting and said hi.

With a concerned look on his face, Alex immediately asked me why I hadn’t gone up to receive communion. For the first time I revealed my Catholicism to him. He gave me a puzzled and bemused look and said “But you’re not a real Catholic are you? I thought you went to Barneys back in Sydney?” Mindy had been trying to hide my Catholicism from friends and new acquaintances, as it was an awkward thing for her to explain why she was dating someone from another religion. As such, when I had first met Alex McCoy and he had asked what church I went to back home in Sydney, Mindy immediately jumped in and said “St Barnabas Broadway” before I could say anything. Alex quickly responded to this with “Ah, such a great church; I know lots of the guys who go there” and the conversation flowed on.

It felt good to finally own my faith publicly, so I insisted “No I’m a legit Catholic: I go to mass every Sunday, regular confession; the lot!” Alex McCoy looked a tad concerned, and the conversation moved on to other topics.

The Anti-Catholic Challenge

After one Sunday evening service, when everyone goes and has dinner together, I found myself in a food court dedicated to ramen noodles and sitting next to Alex McCoy. “So tell me about this Catholicism of yours” he said with a big grin, and a friendly and inquisitive look on his face. Rather than doing that, I just told him the story of how I became a Christian (Part 1 of this series). He listened politely, and at the end of the story asked “But what about that Catholic stuff? What do you think about Papal infallibility?” I responded that I don’t see how the church can possibly function without it and he leaned back in his chair and scoffed.

good-works[1].jpgAlex revealed that he himself had grown up in the Catholic church and came to reject it when he started reading the bible for himself. I internally rolled my eyes: this was such a typical ex-Catholic testimony. I had heard it a million times before during my time in Credo. When he says “I started reading the bible for myself”, what he really is saying is “Some friendly evangelicals sat down and indoctrinated me into their heresy by quoting the bible at me apart from it’s Catholic context.” I was unimpressed. Alex started to talk about how Catholicism teaches that you have to merit your salvation by works (which is total bullshit) and how he had to reject such a clearly heretical theological system after reading Ephesians 2:8-9, which claims that we are saved by grace through faith.

He continued to rattle off his objections to Catholicism, all of which were entirely inaccurate misconceptions. I tried to remain polite and composed, but I felt helpless in the face of this baffling display of ignorance and bigotry. How is it that someone could grow up in the Catholic church and come away with such erroneous notions as this? Did he not bother to investigate what the church actually teaches? It seemed clear to me that he had simply been taken in by the friendly demeanour of the Evangelicals who had approached him during his university days and soaked up whatever lies and nonsense they fed to him about Catholicism. I had seen it happen many times already and I was totally confident that it was exactly the same story with Alex.

“Marriage Counselling”

st-andrew-church-kowloon-hong-kong_001[1].jpgEventually the date for our “Marriage counselling” rolled around and me and Mindy made the trek to the St Andrews administrative office next to the church. “Marriage counselling” basically ended up being Alex McCoy trying to convince Mindy not to marry me, whilst trying to get me to apostatise from Catholicism and return to the Protestant heresy. He had somehow got it into his head that the best and most pastoral way to approach me was to launch an all out assault on my faith. He seemed to have made it his mission to convert me back to Protestantism.

The only reason I tolerated this attack is because I really enjoy talking about theology, and in Hong Kong I was incredibly lonely and starved for someone to talk to about this topic, which I love and is dear to my heart. A theological argument like this was better than the banal crap that I had been talking about with everyone else I met in Hong Kong, even if it was a high stakes, stressful conversation.

saved_stamp.GIFI remember at one point Alex McCoy was saying “If you say works contribute to salvation you subtract from the sufficiency of the cross”. I tried to respond but he just kept saying that same thing over and over again like a mantra. Eventually something clicked within me and I totally lost it. I responded firmly with “If you say faith contributes to salvation you subtract from the sufficiency of the cross.” He sneered at me and accused me of being facetious. I was unnerved and said that maybe I was, just a little. He backed down and moved onto other topics. But I wasn’t being facetious, I was dead serious: This was a light bulb moment that has stuck with me to this day. It suddenly became clear to me that “Faith alone” is nonsense if you believe that faith has the power to objectively justify you: The cross is objectively sufficient. I realised then and there that salvation does not depend on me in any way whatsoever, and this includes faith. I had encountered my first inkling of the Lutheran theology of salvation as unconditional promise. Later on this theology would fully take form in my mind and capture my imagination, developing into a robust doctrine of universal salvation. I had Alex McCoy to thank for it, at least in part.

He began to bash me over the head with “assurance”. He was leaning in and imploring me “but don’t you want assurance of salvation?” trying to entice me over to his tribe with baseless promises of a guaranteed place in heaven. What he utterly failed to realise is that an assurance of salvation is completely meaningless without first having an assurance of truth. If your church is fallible then whatever assurance you have with regards to your salvation is also entirely fallible and untrustworthy. I tried to convey this to him but he just refused to hear it and moved on to his next perceived pet peeve with Catholicism.

512R6DPg3LL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgHe pulled out some anti-catholic books which he recommended that I read, giving particular attention to “Nothing in my hand I bring” by Ray Galea. I responded that Mindy had already given them to me and I had already read them and found them entirely unconvincing for a variety of reasons. He was obviously frustrated at this point and stuck for what to say next.

Our first “Marriage counselling” session ended on a dissonant note, with Alex McCoy closing with a prayer that went something along the lines of “I don’t know how we can pray to you tonight Lord, considering not all of us here actually worship you…” Classic. Pastoral and ecumenical brownie points to you Mr McCoy.

I found the entire experience to be completely traumatic, as his relentless assault against Catholicism had put me in a hyper-defensive state of mind. Unfortunately the trauma didn’t end with his closing prayer, because Mindy continued to argue with me after we left his office and headed home. She was just as bigoted and anti-catholic as he was, and ten times as ignorant! I really began to hate and despise her for her pigheadedness and theological stupidity. Was I really going to marry this utter idiot?

Our second “marriage counselling” session went down in much the same way as the first. Alex pulled out all stops and fired all canons in an attempt to take me down. We argued about the sacrificial nature of the mass, transubstantiation, indulgences, Mary and everything else. Whenever I made an attempt to respond to his objections he would immediately cut in with “Where is that in the bible?” Every time he did this I would just roll my eyes. “Why does it have to be in the bible? I don’t care if it’s in the bible or not: The tradition of the church is sufficient to prove the doctrine’s validity.” After a couple of Alex[1].pngthese exchanges Alex caught on to the fact that I was a died in the wool papist and was not going to fall for his Fundamentalist sophistries.

Alex leaned back in his chair and exhaled a loud sigh of exasperation. He didn’t know where to go from here: I was obviously committed to my Catholic faith and would not budge from my position solely based on his bullshit misconceptions and lies about Catholicism, which I had encountered a million times before during my days amongst the apostate ex-Catholics in Credo.

Descent to Depression

When I wasn’t fucking her, I was constantly fighting with Mindy. Here was the woman I was intending to marry and share my life and journey with, and yet I couldn’t even talk about my passions without it turning into a massive theological debate and then blowing up into a massive conflict. Mindy was constantly accusing me of being a Pharisee. Ironically I later realised that the label fits her far better, because she believes that “faith” is a condition of salvation and she is convinced that she has met this condition, thus puffing herself up with pride and elitism as she considers the poor plebs who don’t happen to share her faith and will therefore “rightly” burn in Hell for all eternity. It eventually got to the point where we simply avoided talking about theological topics completely.

I started to have serious doubts about whether a marriage between us was going to work out: We would be going to separate churches, and refusing to talk about that which was most dear to us – our relationship with God. We would be fighting over how to raise our children. No one should be going into a marriage expecting this level of turmoil. A couple of arguments here and there are to be expected, but this was next level.

I felt surrounded by enemies in Hong Kong. The only friends I had were the Protestants from St Andrew’s, and even though they were incredibly friendly, the fact was they were not Catholic, and this fact bubbled to the surface during bible studies. Whenever I went to bible studies with these people I always had to bite my tongue and not say anything, because I regularly found myself disagreeing on points that the entire group agreed on. This made me feel like a failed witness to my faith, and was incredibly discouraging and disheartening.

39571064_ml-ml0y0tb5jx377t8wn84fjif9oq67auyh3rcfkqp5fc[1].jpgI remember one bible study I worked up the courage to actually openly question the consensus of the group concerning this idea of total depravity/total inability. It seemed clear to me that God does not give commandments unless he knows we are able to meet them. The group disagreed, they were convinced that we were doomed to be sinners until Jesus comes back. Whereas Catholic doctrine teaches that it is within our power to be perfect, provided that we depend upon the grace of God. The group naturally jumped on me and we ended up going in circles based on different assumptions between Catholics and Protestants. This was stressful, as it was me on my own trying to stand up to 10 other people. Naturally after the bible study I ended up in a fight with Mindy. She said “I’m happy you finally contributed something, but you really are way too optimistic”. So much for Protestant joy.

As a response to the onslaught of Alex McCoy, the arguments with Mindy, and the heresy that I was being bombarded with in the heathen bible studies; I ended up reading theology and apologetics 24/7. When I was supposed to be working; I would be reading theology. When I was supposed to be sleeping; I would be reading theology. When I was travelling home on the train; I would be reading theology on my phone. It was during this time that I became more and more familiar with the eclectic orthodoxy blog, as well as universalist theology in general. I also got entirely hung up on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura: It seemed like such nonsense to me, but I was determined to understand it. I ended up going in mental circles on this issue for over a year.

I really wanted to reclaim some time for myself. I felt entirely overwhelmed after hanging out with Mindy so often. I began staying up all night and watching star trek until the wee hours of the morning. I would set my alarm for 10am and end up going to bed at 4am every night. This was not psychologically healthy at all.

I felt like I had no time to myself and was sacrificing everything for Mindy and getting nothing in return. I felt like I had given up so much for this relationship but she hadn’t given up anything at all. I felt like I was putting in all the effort on the religious front; attending those cursed bible studies and Sunday services in an ecumenical spirit, whereas she wanted nothing to do with my Catholic faith at all. I felt ripped off.

Yelling-AdobeStock_70020912-copy[1].jpgI was constantly fighting with Mindy, and not just about theological matters. I was always the one saying sorry, and she would never admit that she was wrong or had any part to play in the conflict. She was constantly threatening to break up with me.

I began to feel incredibly depressed as I considered the prospect of having to endure this for my entire life after I had locking myself into this relationship via marriage. I felt as if I was locked into an entirely depressing path: I was stuck working a job for which I was totally incompetent, and engaged to a fiancée who was utterly unable to see eye to eye with me on important issues.

I was completely terrified at the prospect of having children with Mindy: How were we supposed to bring them up? Which church would we go to? I insisted that we were going to attend both Catholic and Protestant church every Sunday, but Mindy didn’t want to play ball and complained about this to no end.

Furthermore, actually getting to the point of marriage felt nigh impossible: there were so many hoops to jump through. Mindy was refusing to have a Catholic ceremony, which meant that I had to get a special dispensation from the Sydney Archbishop to both have a Protestant service as well as marry a Protestant at all. We also had to do some compulsory catholic marriage prep course. Mindy was obsessing over finding the perfect wedding dress while I was trying to organise a logistical nightmare and track down an appropriate church and minister to perform the wedding in Sydney.

I felt an incredible sense of injustice, as I had spent so much time and energy investigating Protestantism and trying to make sense of it, but Mindy had not reciprocated. She had invested exactly zero effort in trying to understand my faith. I felt completely ripped off, and the trust in our relationship continued to break down.

I was coming home every night incredibly late. I would take my sedatives and board the MTR from Mei Foo to Yuen Long nearly every night. I had to endure the hellish tunnel that runs beneath the mountains between Mei Foo and Yuen Long, falling asleep on my feet. As I disembarked the train and begun walking back to my flat, I was full to exploding point with anger, frustration, resentment, rage and hatred for myself, Mindy, my situation, God, and life in general.

I was feeling utterly terrified of hell for most of my waking hours. I felt incredibly awkward asking for confession (my church at Yuen Long did not have regular confession times and you had to make a special request) and confessing the same old sin every bloody time.

In between my confessions I was struggling to muster up perfect contrition and utterly failing to do so. At the time I was unaware of the unconditional promises of God, and I was therefore unable to place my faith in them. I was spiritually walking in darkness, despite my deep, profound and prayerful relationship with God.

suicide-jump[1].jpgI was incredibly stressed and depressed, and I began to think about suicide all the time. I didn’t actually have any intentions of going ahead with it, but I was just constantly pondering it. I remember always glancing out at my balcony and thinking to myself “Gee that’s high, I could so easily jump off there and kill myself if I wanted to”

A Holiday to Sydney

During Christmas of 2015, while me and Mindy were walking through Mei Foo to Mindy’s house, I totally broke down crying. I missed my family so much. Pretty soon after this incident, Mindy organised a trip to Sydney for my 2016 birthday.

Once we had arrived in Sydney, I just wanted to be with my family, but Mindy had other plans: She wanted to travel to the blue mountains and attend the LIFT (Looking Into Full Time Ministry) conference that was organised by the UNSW Evangelical society. I felt obliged to accompany her, and so for four precious days that I could have spent with my family, I left and trekked to the blue mountains with Mindy.

The LIFT conference was hell. The preacher was Joshua Ng, another Hongkie. Josh launched into a vitriolic rant against the “evil and depraved catholic church who teach a false gospel of salvation by works”. My blood was boiling over and I want to get up out of my seat and walk out of the room, but I ended up sitting still and fuming. Mindy realised how awkward the situation was and started fumbling in her bag for something to distract me with.

PodcastPicBlueBack-400x400[1].pngLater on during LIFT conference, we were walking from one session to another, and Mindy was chatting to yet another ex-Catholic. This guy was saying the most offensive things about Catholicism: Claiming that his Catholic parents were not Christian and are most certainly going to burn in Hell. He shared a brief testimony of his conversion out of Catholicism, and as usual it was the same old predictable nonsense that every other ex-Catholic says: “I read the bible and realised that it contradicts Catholicism so I left”. I was holding hands with Mindy as we walked with this guy and I suddenly just wanted to get away. I wanted to toss her hand away and just escape this depressing existence.

When we returned to Sydney, Mum totally refused to cooperate with my wedding plans. She kept complaining that she “hates weddings” and “wouldn’t even go to her own wedding if she had the choice”. This frustrated me and depressed me even more. Marriage was supposed to be one of the most important events in my life and I wanted my family to be there, which was the entire reason we were going to have the ceremony in Sydney. Mum kept saying “Just invite your father” and I was like “are you freaking kidding? I want my immediate family to be there!”

Mindy managed to cut my time with my family short by another two days. She dragged me down to Melbourne to have “dinner” with her extended family. She was expecting me to have a perfect understanding of all the nuances of Chinese culture and behave like a Chinese gentleman, even though I don’t understand the language. During the actual dinner her family were incredibly rude and inhospitable to me and generally tried to ignore me. I was not accepted by these people at all. After the utter failure of a dinner I immediately headed to Melbourne’s “The Croft” bar and started pounding back shots while chatting with the bar staff. I spent 100 dollars on “Syringe shots”, and had my first hot alcoholic beverage.

crazy.PNGI knew that I was incredibly depressed at this point, but I was unable to discern just how bad and dangerous the situation was. Luckily, I had scheduled a check up with the team at EIPS. I reported that I was thinking about killing myself a lot, and my psychologist – Alexandra Goymour – was incredibly concerned. She asked me a series of questions in order to work out exactly how bad a place I was in. At the conclusion of her questions, it was completely obvious to her that the situation was balancing on a knifes edge. She exhorted me to return to Sydney ASAP. I figured, “Doctors orders” and so agreed to do it. However Mindy was a big concern: she was very manipulative and had managed to thoroughly get me under her thumb. Obviously she was going to be very resistant to the idea of my returning to Sydney.

We concluded the holiday and returned to Hong Kong. I was only intending to come back for a month, so that I could tie up loose ends, pack up my possessions and then fly back to Sydney. Mindy had been alerted to the recommendation of my psychologist that I return to Sydney, and she was already doing her best to stamp the idea out of my mind. I just went along with it and pretended to relent, but secretly I had every intention of escaping Hong Kong for good by the end of April.

Finally Seeing the Light

One night during my final month in Hong Kong, I was going about my usual business: binge on star trek; pound back a couple of Tsing Taos; read theology articles at Eclectic Orthodoxy. Around about 4am I finally slammed my laptop shut and attempted to fall asleep. As I was rolling around in bed, many theological ideas and concepts that I had encountered over the past 24 months were floating around in my mind.

Alex McCoy’s words came back to me: The Sufficiency of the Cross. The beautiful eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov was flooding my mind’s eye: A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ. The visionary words of St Isaac hovered in my consciousness: Those in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. I was seriously pondering the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God who I claimed to worship: If God wants to save me, is it really possible that he could fail in the attempt?

And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all made sense. I realised that I believed in the greater hope. I realised that I believed in universal salvation.

Omnipotent[1].jpgI sat up straight in bed, gasped and covered my mouth with my hand in shock. I begun laughing to myself and was full of wonder – I actually understand all this stuff, it really does make sense, and I actually believe it! There is no need to fear damnation, for either myself or my friends and family. I can rest assured in the confident hope that all of us will arrive safely in Heaven. Salvation does not depend on us in any way, it depends entirely on God. There is nothing that can stop him or stand in his way. Not even death, sin, unrepentance or Hell can thwart his salvific will. God can and will conquer everyone and everything. What can we do but rejoice?

I had finally discovered the good news of Christianity. After 4 years of being an active Christian, I had finally understood the Gospel.

(Go to “Testimony: Universalist to Priest”)

Hermeneutics 101 – Catholicism and the Council of Trent: An Anathema Against Assurance

“If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.”

Thus reads the sixteenth canon of the sixth session of the Council of Trent. To my knowledge, this is the only anathema in the entire Catholic tradition which touches on the issue of assurance. If any readers are aware of another dogma which concerns assurance, I would be most indebted and grateful if you could inform me and direct me to the statement.

AnathemaIt is my conviction that misinterpretation of this anathema has solidified much misery and despair among the Catholic sensus fidelium for the past 500 years. Catholics simply are not happy; nearly every single Catholic that I meet is either apathetic towards salvation, or utterly terrified that they are going to slip up, commit a mortal sin, get run over by a bus on the way to confession, and then get dragged down to the deepest circle of Hell, reserved for those totally depraved sinners who masturbate, smoke weed and lie on their tax return. Catholics simply do not have assurance. Meanwhile – during that same 500 years – Evangelicals have been moving forward in leaps and bounds, overflowing with assurance and gospel joy at the promise that there is a place in heaven and the new creation reserved especially for them.

Catholics have been taught that they can have no assurance that they are “saved”; they can have no assurance that they will persevere to the end; they can have no assurance that they will go to heaven; if they have gone to confession, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they are in a state of grace; if they have commit a mortal sin and privately confessed it to God, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they have done so in a state of perfect contrition. Uncertainty, Uncertainty, Uncertainty. To believe that you are surely saved is regarded as the mortal sin of presumption.

It is my conviction that all of this uncertainty is a toxic parasite on Catholicism which has been sapping the joy from our congregations for over a thousand years. It has been around for far too long and needs to be done away with once and for all. It is my conviction that things really needn’t be this way: Catholics are well within their dogmatic and ecclesiastical rights to have the same assurance of salvation that the Protestants are currently enjoying. Lets pull apart this anathema from Trent to see why.

An Exploration of Certainty

189289836[1].pngWhat exactly does “certainty” mean? Is it actually possible to be certain of anything? It seems to be valid to doubt anything and everything. It is possible even to doubt your own existence! Even from a young age, I understood that it is impossible to have an epistemological certainty of anything. There is always the possibility that whatever you are believing is false. There is always the possibility that reality is not how it seems.

The film “The Matrix” is a wonderful cinematic exploration of this principle: In the film, the computer hacker Thomas Anderson (who adopts the hacker moniker of “Neo”) goes about daily life; he goes to work, has breakfast, sleeps, browses the internet late at night. But he feels like something is “off”. He suspects that reality is not quite what it seems to be. Eventually he is contacted by a mysterious group of people who claim to be able to show him the truth. Thomas meets with these people and they make him an offer: take the blue pill and leave the mystery unsolved, returning to real life and going about the daily grind, or take the red pill and have his eyes opened to true reality for the first time ever.

Thomas takes the red pill, and his whole world shatters. It turns out that almost everything that he took for granted was a lie. He was living in a computer simulation the entire time. Stuff that he thought he could depend on with certainty was pulled right out from underneath him.

We are all in exactly the same position as Neo: There may very well be an objective Truth out there (this is in fact an article of faith in Catholicism), however we can never be certain that we have really grasped it: it is always possible for someone to swoop in, offer us the red pill, and shatter our entire view of reality, showing us that everything we believe is wrong.

Assurance: Are You Saved?

AssuranceThis principle of uncertainty applies to literally everything: You cannot be certain of the colour of your own eyes, you cannot be certain of your own age, and most importantly, you cannot be certain of your salvation.

It is a classic tactic of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to walk up to Catholics and ask “Are you saved?” Anything less than a devout “Amen brother!” from the Catholic will result in a free and unrequested sermon on assurance and knowing that because of what Jesus did on the cross, you’re going to make it to Heaven (and of course they will typically water down this wonderful message by attaching conditions to it, such as “faith” or “accepting Christ”). Most Catholics when asked this question will say “I don’t know if I’m saved. I’ll find out when I die”, causing the Evangelical asking the question to shake his head in pity and disapproval.

In an epistemological sense, this typically Catholic, non-committal response is completely correct. The Catholic simply cannot know whether they are saved or not. The Catholic has no sure idea what’s going to happen to them after they die. Furthermore, the Evangelical is completely fooling himself if he honestly thinks that he can be certain of his salvation. This is what I would like to call epistemological presumption. To be certain of anything constitutes epistemological presumption.

Assurance: Two Kinds of Certainty

And yet… perhaps there are things which we can be certain of. This is best illustrated by example:

Right now I am typing up this blog post. Now, do I know with objective certainty that I am currently typing up this blog post? No, of course not: this could be entirely illusory: I’m not certain that my computer exists; I’m not certain that my fingers and keyboard exist; I’m not certain that this blog even exists. All of it could be a lie.

ordinateur-de-bureau-pc-1456070535WEH[1].jpgBut here’s the twist: there is in actual fact exactly one thing that I can be certain of in this situation. I can doubt that I exist; I can doubt that this post exists; I can doubt that my computer exists; however I cannot doubt that I am currently experiencing the act of typing up a blog post on my computer. While I can doubt the content of my experience, I cannot doubt the experience in and of itself. This experience is real, even though the content of this experience may all be a lie.

I call this subjective certainty: it is the only form of certainty that it is valid to possess. The certainty of the fact that experience itself is true, even if the content of that experience is false. In this way there is a certain objectivity to our subjectivity. Arguably this is because subjective experience is in actual fact a form of objective divine revelation direct from God.

To review: I am not certain that I exist, but I am certain that I experience existence. I am not certain that I am hungry, but I am certain that I experience hunger. I am not certain that I love my family, but I am certain that I experience love for my family. And finally, I am not certain that I am saved, but I am certain that I experience salvation.

When Protestants talk about being “certain” that they are saved, this is what they are talking about (although many of them don’t realise it). Protestants examine their experience of life, and they are able to detect something within their experience of life which corresponds to the idea of “Salvation”, namely, an invincible joy which proceeds from the fact that they trust the unconditional grace of God to get them to heaven.

This is why, if you ask a Protestant if they are saved, many of them will respond with “Of course!” – It just seems so obvious to them: they are living and breathing salvation; they are walking in the light; Jesus is their best friend and they regularly converse with each other; they are overflowing with gospel joy at the prospect that God has them in his hands and will never let go. Protestants have a subjective certainty that they are saved: they simply know it because they daily experience it.

Anathema: What is actually being condemned?

The question is, does such a subjective certainty fall under the condemnation of the anathema of Trent quoted at the beginning of this post? Are protestants to be held as heretics on this point? Has such an overwhelming experience of gospel joy been dogmatically ruled out?

It seems fairly obvious to me that no, such an experience of joy has not been condemned by this anathema. Consider: The anathema talks about future salvation or perseverance. It claims that it is impossible to be certain that you will persevere all the way to the end and arrive safely at heaven. However the evangelical joy comes from experiencing and believing in present salvation. The evangelical joy proceeds from living a life of salvation right now. The evangelical joy does not necessarily have anything to say about perseverance to the end: it is instead all about living in the present moment and finding salvation in your day to day experience.

AssuranceFurthermore, you have to ask what kind of certainty is actually being condemned by this anathema. Is it condemning subjective certainty, or objective, epistemological certainty? Subjective certainty is more of a “confidence”, whereas objective certainty – as discussed previously – is simply an impossibility. Admittedly the anathema is ambiguous on this point; it simply is not clear what kind of certainty it is condemning. However if I had to take a guess, I would estimate that when the anathema says “absolute and infallible certainty” it is referring to epistemological, objective certainty, rather than subjective certainty. In other words, I suspect that according to this dogma it is entirely valid to have a full and robust, 100% confident faith and hope that you will persevere unto heaven and the fullness of salvation.

In short, if I had to interpret exactly what this anathema is actually condemning, I think it is fair to say that it is not condemning a subjective experience of certainty that you are saved. Next time the cheeky Protestant asks if you are saved, you really should feel comfortable saying “absolutely! Praise God!” What it is actually condemning, is an objective, epistemological certainty that you are and will be saved.

Anathema: Two Kinds of Presumption

An objection is raised: What about presumption? Isn’t it standard Catholic doctrine that being certain of your salvation is the mortal sin of presumption?

Firstly, as far as I am aware this doctrine is not infallible dogma and it is therefore safe for a theologian to disregard. Secondly, I think it depends how you want to define “Presumption”. My understanding of presumption is not so much “being certain that you’re saved” as it is “living your life as if sin has no consequences” or in other words “taking God’s mercy for granted while simultaneously ignoring his justice”.

This is exactly why Catholics have a doctrine of purgatory: You may indeed be guaranteed your salvation, however your sins still have consequences: if you are not repentant you will burn in the hellfire until you repent.

AnathemaThis is why a Catholic who has the gospel joy is generally better off than a protestant. Protestants are very firm on their rejection of purgatory, which means that their assurance of salvation is mixed up with an unhealthy antinomianism: Protestants are convinced that no matter how much they sin, they have been covered over by Jesus’ blood and therefore they will go straight to heaven when they die. This is vile and evil doctrine of the most presumptuous kind, and thankfully Catholics do not suffer from it.

I would like to call this form of presumption soteriological presumption. Contrast this with epistemological presumption. I am convinced that both of these are mortal sins, but they are quite different in character: Soteriological presumption is the conviction that your sins will not be punished, whereas epistemological presumption is where you claim to know things that you simply do not know.

Assurance: We Should be Certain of Our Salvation

So is it ok to have faith that you will persevere? Yes! Without such a faith you cannot enter into salvation here and now! There is no dogma which condemns such a faith. We should believe that we are predestined to heaven, even if we cannot objectively know that this is the case.

Is it ok to have faith that you are saved right now? Yes! This is the essence of the Christian life! Without having this firm assurance that you are walking in the light right now, you will be constantly in doubt about your salvation and have an active fear of Hell. God did not want us to live in fear; as he says in 1 John:

1 John 4:18 RSV-CE

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.

In the same letter through the pen of John, God exhorts us to have certainty!

1 John 5:13 RSV-CE

I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.

If you believe in the name of the Son of God, you can know that you are saved!

One of the most radical promises that God makes to us is that in the eschaton, we will finally have objective certainty:

1 Corinthians 13:12 RSV-CE

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

assuranceNow we see God in a dark mirror, however in the end times we will be able to see him face to face. Looking God in the eyes is akin to staring at Objective Truth directly and beholding it in all of it’s glory. In other words, while we are pilgrims here on earth we cannot have objective certainty; we can only have faith and hope. However when we finally arrive in heaven and are staring at God face to face, we will finally have the objective, epistemological certainty which we crave. Direct knowledge and perception of God and Truth is something reserved for heaven: we eagerly await it and rejoice at the prospect of its advent.

So rejoice, dear Christian; God loves you and wants to save you. He is God; you are but a man. Do not be so presumptuous as to think you can outsmart the lord of the universe: he wants you to be saved, and he will have the victory. When we pray “Thy will be done” it is a prophecy, not a request. God gets what God wants, and he wants you. Now have faith, step into the light, and sing doxologies to our glorious saviour Jesus Christ, until he comes again, amen.

Testimony – Agnostic to Christian

Testimonies often come across as mini-biographies or life stories. I am going to embrace this and start right at the beginning.

The Beginning

memumdad.jpgI was born in 1993. Both my parents are materialistic atheists, however my father did grow up in a nominally Catholic household. When I was two years old my parents had a divorce. There was fault and blame on both sides.  I currently get on just fine with Dad, even though I rarely see him as he now lives in California. When I was four Mum remarried to a Chinese Filipino guy who shares my name. Since then she has given birth to two more sons and three more daughters, so I now have quite a large family.

All of my brothers and sisters were baptised when they were babies, so as to more easily get us all into the Catholic education system. I was baptised along with my oldest younger brother when I was 10 years old. It didn’t mean anything to me for many years and it still means absolutely nothing to my brothers and sisters. They don’t understand the significance of the sacraments or believe that they have any intrinsic power. Later on – when I was transitioning back into the Catholic church from Protestantism – I was extremely thankful that my Mum had made me go through all the sacraments of initiation as it made it easier for me to rejoin the church.

My First Encounter with Powerful Drugs

Stimulant-drugs[1].jpgI was an incredibly troublesome and difficult child. Perhaps a large part of this was due to the fact that my father was entirely absent during my early years. In any case, I did not perform well at school and was always getting into trouble. When I was four years old my mother was driven to take me to a top notch psychiatrist in the city who scanned my brain and made me do all sorts of cognitive tests. The conclusion reached was that I was a super-intelligent child but my brain was dysfunctional and I suffered from ADHD. I was prescribed Methylphenidate and from that point forward I was much more well behaved and successful at school. As time went by my dose of Ritalin steadily increased. By the time I was 19 I was on the strongest dose of long acting Concerta on the market. I remember looking in the mirror and seeing the veins on my forehead visibly throbbing. This drug was incredibly powerful. It also had some incredibly negative side-effects; it completely destroyed my sense of humour; it made me feel completely blank and emotionless, like a machine or computer; it gave me intense social anxiety; I was incredibly sexually aroused to the point of hyper-sexuality much of the time (which led to an incredibly debilitating porn addiction throughout most of my teenage years and early 20s); it interfered with my sleep. Later on in life my mum would lament that I had experimented with psychedelics and experienced psychosis, trying to place all the blame on my shoulders; But I always maintain that Ritalin was my gateway drug and therefore her decision to pump me full of Methylphenidate from a young age was a significant contributing factor.

Early Years

From a young age I was pretty philosophically switched on. I remember when I was three or so asking Mum how I could know that she actually existed, or that she was conscious in the same way that I was. She had no idea what I was talking about, but it was important to me. I became a functional solipsist until right up to my teenage years, and remained that way until my flirtations with psychedelics finally gave me compelling evidence to think that other people are not mere philosophical zombies.

Matrixpill[1].jpgWhen I was seven or eight I saw the Matrix, and it quickly became a favourite film and had a profound influence on me. I very quickly became a staunch epistemological relativist who questioned the reality of everything (even my own existence) and as time went by I came to a point where I totally denied there was any such thing as objective truth. This was a defining feature of my thinking right up to my conversion to Christianity.

When I was about sixteen, I read a pulpy “Introduction to philosophy” book which presented it’s ideas in the light of science fiction films. This book quickly became my bible. One key thesis in the book is that all philosophical problems are simply expressions of the one grand philosophical problem articulated within the French philosophy of “Absurdity”. Put simply, this idea states that all big philosophical problems can be reduced to a conflict between our small, human, subjective perspective, and the big, eternal, objective perspective of God (assuming he exists). This idea of “Absurdity” became crucial to my understanding of life and reality all the way up to my conversion.

For most of my life (even my prepubescent days to a large degree) the meaning of my life revolved around girls and romance. I was always pining after some cute girl. I was never really interested in sex, and really was just searching for a loving relationship with someone of the opposite gender. Throughout my high school years I struck out as much as I could at a boys school and tried to experiment with relationships. I never quite got to the point of having a legitimate girlfriend, and I experienced many emotionally crushing set backs and failures which turned me cynical and bitter. By the time I was 18, I was completely cynical about relationships and had fallen in with the pick-up artist community. At this point I no longer cared about finding a girlfriend and my life revolved almost entirely around losing my virginity.

On my 17th birthday my Mum kicked me out of home. I had been a rebellious teenager, hanging out with girls and not coming home until late, refusing to call Mum and let her know where I am. Mum had had enough and booted me out. I went to live with my grandfather on the northern beaches of Sydney. In the end I achieved massive success in the HSC, with an ATAR of 97.15. How much this is due to me and how much this was due to Methylphenidate, I don’t know. My relationship with my Mum and immediate family was extremely strained, and it stayed that way right up until my conversion to Christianity.

Revelations of Hypocrisy

fc8[1].jpgWhen I was 18 I moved out and begun to live on campus at my university (The University of Technology, Sydney). It seemed like absolutely everyone was regularly drinking to excess and smoking weed non-stop. And yet despite that, these people seemed completely normal, great guys and girls, who were achieving significant academic success. This was a major shock to me: I had been brought up in an extremely sheltered environment in which any and all drugs were considered “Bad” and anyone who so much as smells a joint is automatically “addicted” and their life is instantly ruined forever. Suddenly the hypocrisy of the law came crashing down on me: How is it that such a powerful and soul-destroying drug such as Methylphenidate is legal and prescribed regularly, and yet something as harmless as Cannabis is illegal? I had experienced first hand the life-destroying effects of Ritalin and it absolutely baffled me that it was legal while Marijuana was not. This slow burning train of thought stuck with me for many months, and grew to encompass psychedelics, alcohol, and other substances.

Rock Bottom

From 2011 to mid 2012 I was still right into the pick up artist scene and dead-set on losing my virginity. My life revolved around this goal. In the back of my mind I still just wanted love and relationship, but the pick up artist manuals had convinced me that from an evolutionary perspective life is entirely about having as much sex as possible. I had various long term and short term targets who I was trying to get down and dirty with (which is ironically a classic rookie mistake according to the PUA community). Girls did not seem human to me. I was completely cynical about them and saw them simply as sex objects with a complicated social locking device standing between me and the poon. I enjoyed some limited social success as a pick up artist, but never quite managed to achieve what I was aiming for – the loss of my virginity.

I was not really happy or satisfied with life at this point. The only thing carrying me along was this goal of having sex with someone. The scene was set for me to hit rock bottom.

pr0nstashe.jpgI finally managed to get a girl into bed with me (twice), however my nervousness/excitement plus many years of porn addiction resulted in total erectile dysfunction. This was absolutely soul crushing and life destroying. My world was rocked and my ego was entirely shattered. I took my porn stash and physically ripped it in half (It has been stuck to my wall ever since as a reminder of my definitive decision to renounce porn). The entire purpose of my life had been thwarted – I had been in a situation where I could have easily lost my virginity and yet I was completely unable to perform. I felt like life had lost all meaning and I no longer had any purpose.

I had been flirting with the idea of taking a psychedelic drug for many months at this point. I had read much about these substances and they seemed completely fascinating. However there were still remains of my sheltered upbringing holding me back from taking the plunge and dropping tabs. After this life shattering failure to perform in bed I was finally in the mindset to give it a go. “What have I got to lose?” I thought to myself. Life really seemed meaningless all of a sudden and I was in a position where I was a wild card; I no longer cared about anything – I would potentially have even tried heroin or Methamphetamine at this point.

Friends and Enemies

Throughout my time living at UTS I had gotten to know a certain person, who I will call Albert. Albert was already right into all the drugs and was a very manipulative and selfish character. However he also had charisma and charm, and was able to smooth over conversation such that you don’t realise when he is manipulating you. He had been grooming me for about a year, trying to get me to come around to the idea of taking drugs. He had a strategy for doing this. Once he even directly told me his strategy and I was too stupid to realise that he was using it on me at that very moment. In the end I cannot speak to his motivations or judge his internal thought processes, but in retrospect I think he wanted to use me as a guinea pig to try out new drugs and check if they are safe before he did them himself. I had smoked weed and tobacco and been drinking with him a couple of times. He was also a bit of a pick up artist himself and had managed to enjoy some actual success, unlike me.

I thought he was a friend, and in my rock bottom state I found myself at his door. I had decided that I was finally going to give psychedelics a go and he was the guy to go to seeing as he had a large stash of all sorts of drugs. He was more than happy to oblige. We blocked out that Saturday to try a new, recently synthesised psychedelic known as 25i-NBOMe. At the time almost nothing whatsoever was known about this drug, but Albert had tried it a couple of times and found it enjoyable and safe enough, so I felt confident enough to give it a go myself. Since that time, there have been many reported deaths surrounding this drug. In retrospect I am extremely lucky to have survived.

The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao

eyenowords[1].jpgOn Saturday, some time in July 2012, Albert and I met on the roof of Yura Mudang, the largest building in UTS housing. We stuck the tabs containing 25i-NBOMe to our gums and waited for the drug to kick in. During the come-up we just talked about life and shot the crap (talking about “assignments, uniwork, hot babes of housing etc” as I later described it to a friend). I was nervous and excited, wondering what was going to happen. I expected to hallucinate and see some beautiful colours and patterns, but in no way did I expect what actually took place.

The psychedelic experience is ineffable. It cannot be described with words, it can only be experienced. Once you have experienced it, you know. As such it would be futile for me to attempt to describe what happened. When you try to describe a psychedelic experience you end up saying crazy things like “I saw snakes riding cowboys” or “I saw a pink elephant dancing on the roof”. Of course you didn’t actually see anything like that, but these are the only words that you can find to describe what you saw, even though they are totally inadequate to capture the experience. I will elaborate on certain interesting aspects however, and if you have ever had a psychedelic experience you will know what I’m talking about.

When you are on psychedelics, time completely dissolves. You feel like you are in an eternal, everlasting moment. The only way to keep track of time is to have a stop watch or pocket watch which you can consult. This can be an experience of heavenly bliss, or hellish torment, depending on your state of mind. Furthermore, your identity completely evaporates. You try to locate your “I” and it is nowhere to be found. This leads to some interesting feelings; you feel like you are intimately connected to the universe and everything else. The boundary between you and the outside world breaks down and the two flow into each other and through each other. You are the universe and the universe is you. This is particularly profound when you take psychedelics with someone else; you feel as if you are intimately linked. Your empathy levels are raised to the point where you feel exactly what the other person is feeling, and you feel as if you can read their mind. They feel exactly the same way, and the result is a mingling of souls in which two people feel as if they are the same person, but sharing two bodies simultaneously. Your sense of free will completely evaporates, which can be both ecstatic and terrifying: You find yourself just going with the flow, and not exercising any agency at all. Questions of epistemology come crashing down on you: “Is any of this real? What is reality? What is real and what is not? Is there any difference?” These questions are always relevant, even when you’re not high on psychedelics, however they become particularly pronounced when you are tripping. This can be a dangerous state of mind to be in: when you spend all your time questioning reality to this extent, you might just get to a point where you find it reasonable to fly off a building or walk in front of a bus.

When you are tripping, everything is exactly the same, but everything is simultaneously totally different. It’s the same old buildings, the same old roads, the same old vehicles, the same old park, the same old sights and sounds. And yet you see them in a way in which you have never seen them before. You feel as if you fully understand everything, and yet simultaneously understand nothing at all. You come face to face with God and experience the most intimate communion, and simultaneously realise that he is impenetrably ineffable, mysterious and completely incomprehensible.

Revelations

During my first trip with Albert, he was something of a guide. While we were indeed both high, he had far more experience and was able to direct the trip and ensure that it never strayed into “bad trip” territory. I don’t know whether to be thankful or not, because in retrospect this was obviously a manifestation of his psychopathic, manipulative character. We walked from the roof of Yura Mudang to the outdoor balconies of the UTS tower. We walked from UTS to Victoria park. We walked all around Victoria park and USYD. Then we came back home and relaxed in my flat as the drug wore off. The visual effects were amazing; I recall looking up at the sky and seeing millions of shooting stars, and they were all different colours; green, red, orange, blue. The psychological revelations were profound – I felt like I had finally discovered the answers to all of life’s questions. And yet as the drug gradually wore off, my grasp of these important truths began to slip away.

23e2f2717ce8e472a676f6e08fee221c[1].jpgThe revelations were the most important part of the trip for me, whereas Albert was just in it for a good time and to see some visual patterns. I remember talking to him about the revelations and he responded with “My biggest revelation was when I realised that the revelations don’t mean anything”. Maybe he was right on some level, but I wasn’t buying it. After he went home and I was lying in bed trying (and failing) to sleep, I wondered at what I had just experienced. I felt like I had just been initiated into some secret society that has always been before my eyes but I had never seen it before. How many people knew what the psychedelic experience was like? It felt as if traffic light crossings and Victoria park had been designed especially for someone who is tripping. It was almost as if psychedelic drugs were the invisible driving force behind all of society. It became apparent that everything we do as a society boils down to making trips more pleasant. Psychedelic drugs were suddenly right at the centre of my world view.

My previous angst over being unable to get laid almost immediately dissolved. I had discovered something far more meaningful, mysterious and profound than simply striving after sex. I immediately purchased another 25 hits of 25i-NBOMe from Albert. I had decided that I was going to trip regularly and explore the psychedelic landscape further.

I also emailed one of my good old friends from high school, Fordy. In the past we had chatted about experimenting with drugs. He had never gotten further than weed, but I recall he had mentioned he was keen to try all sorts of stuff (even ice). I was gushing to him and pontificating about how amazing the experience had been. I was like “you’ve got to try this dude”. He responded with “fuck yeah let’s do it ASAP” and we scheduled another trip for the following weekend.

Descent into Hell

The following weekend, Fordy met up with me and I attempted to replicate the experience I had had the last weekend. We started on the roof of Yura Mudang, dropped tabs and begun to wait until the drug kicked in. It didn’t take long for things to go wrong and get out of hand.

Fordy was incredibly nervous about the whole thing, even though he had not admitted this to me. Furthermore at the time I was an absolute autistic idiot with no real empathy, so I couldn’t see the signs on his face and in his way of talking that he was feeling uncomfortable. The idea of a “bad trip” was not something I really understood at this point; it was a foreign concept. I just assumed that taking psychedelics was always an extremely pleasant and profound experience.

a1221146842_10[1]The situation was dire: Fordy was deep in the city, far away from home, in a building where he didn’t know anyone. This is not a good mindset to be in if you are going to drop tabs. Unfortunately from the way I was talking it was becoming more and more apparent that he didn’t really know me any more either. So from his perspective he was surrounded by a subtle darkness which was becoming more and more manifest as the drug kicked in.

As our mindsets began to change, he became increasingly terrified at the fact that he wasn’t thinking straight. Paradoxes were proliferating and things simply did not seem how they should seem. It was hard to follow a logical train of thought to it’s conclusion without getting distracted and muddled. Our free will disintegrated.

I went into crisis management mode: I was still in a familiar, comfortable environment so I was not feeling particularly bad in myself. However as described above, when you take a psychedelic the barriers between you and other people are washed away – you feel what they feel and they feel what you feel. As such, Fordy’s panic and paranoia began to seep into my own consciousness and I began to panic too. I decided that the safest place to be was back in my flat.

At one point the idea came to me that Fordy would be more comfortable if we could get him back to his own bed in Normanhurst. He agreed and we headed to the elevator. Right as the elevator had reached the bottom floor and the doors had opened, we looked at each other and I knew we were thinking exactly the same thing: “If we leave the building, we’re both going to be in trouble”. Sydney trains were not the place to be during a bad trip. We immediately retreated back to my room and tried to do damage control on a bad situation. “I can’t believe we almost left the building” Fordy would later say.

hqdefault[1]We trekked back to my flat as fast as we could and Fordy hid in my room. I tried to do everything I could to make him as comfortable as possible. I gave him my bed and he immediately rugged up and hid under the covers. I opened my window so that he could watch the stars move and the sun rise. I turned on the heater in order to keep the room cozy and snug. I offered to play whatever music he wanted through my speakers. He chose “Vivaldi – Concerto No. 6 Op. 3 in A minor RV356 for violin, strings & b.c. – 1. Allegro”. We listened to this piece of music on repeat through his phone for the entire night, right up until dawn and morning. The song was stuck in my head for many months after and I have been able to easily recall the tune at any time in the years since. It was truly burned into my brain during this traumatic night in Hell.

At one point Fordy asked if there was a way to make it all stop. I recalled that Albert had said taking Xanax could calm you down during a bad trip and I made motions to contact him. Fordy immediately became incredibly uncomfortable: he was not keen to take further unknown substances and meet more untrustworthy and unknown people. I took the hint and put my phone away.

Fordy’s bad trip affected my trip, and I became hyper-aware of my heart beating. This was my mortality passing right before my eyes and it was terrifying. Time had completely dissolved and I felt as if I was in an eternal moment that consisted entirely of fear, pain, terror, suffering. I have since come to believe that this is what Hell and Purgatory feel like: pure, timeless terror. An interesting side point here is that while the suffering was subjectively everlasting, objectively it did indeed come to an end. I apply this principle to my universalist theology: Hell/Purgatory feels subjectively everlasting, but objectively it comes to an end.

The Journey Home

Eventually it got to a point where a basic level of trust had been re-established between me and Fordy. He communicated to me that he was happy that we were “back on the same wavelength” and we began to somewhat enjoy the trip again, from the safety of my room. He told me about how he could see “snakes riding cowboys” and attempted to draw a graph of how he was feeling. I knew exactly what he was saying and talking about as I could see it too and I felt the same way.

The night carried on and eventually the sun rose, and the drug wore off. Now we were into the hangover, or “afterglow” period (psychedelic hangovers are usually incredibly pleasant). I cooked some sausages for breakfast (it felt like they took forever to cook). Fordy emerged from my bedroom, still seeming entirely fragile and shaky. We ate and then ventured out into the world that had just awoken and started to go about it’s daily business. I took Fordy on a walk up Broadway, through Victoria Park and around the University of Sydney, showing him what I had planned to show him during the trip, had it not gone entirely wrong.

1478572278926[1].jpgAfterwards I accompanied him on an express train to Normanhurst. We tried to rest and move on from what had just happened. I accompanied him almost the entire way to his front door. I remember telling him “Just say when you need me to leave”, and as we approached his house he turned to me and said “Now would probably be a good time to exeunt”. He went home and attempted to avoid his parents while I began the trek back to my apartment in the city, feeling a bit paranoid and vulnerable the entire time. I later found out that Fordy descended into a deep and extended depression following our trip, whereas I entered into an extremely pleasant mania, which I will describe shortly.

The Great Awakening

Once I arrived back home, a deep seated, unconscious pride began to bubble to the surface. I thought to myself “I’m such a good guy, I managed to handle that situation like a pro. I got Fordy home safely. I’m so amazing”. This pride stuck with me and grew more and more pronounced as the following week went by.

Pride like this is incredibly powerful, often coming with inflated self-confidence and self-importance. I had entered into a Manic state that was getting more and more intense as the days went by. Delusions of grandeur were blossoming in my mind. Towards the end, I actually thought that I was God; I don’t think pride can get any worse than this.

82163912-back-view-of-young-businessman-drawing-abstract-glowing-digital-business-hologram-on-concrete-roofro-Stock-Photo[1].jpgFollowing my bad trip, I entered into what has become the most amazing week of my life to that point and since. Armed with my newfound self-confidence, as well as the heightened sense of empathy which psychedelics bring about, all of a sudden I was the man. I knew everything about everything. I was able to command any conversation and predict what my interlocutor was going to say next. I felt as if I could read peoples minds. All of a sudden girls made sense. This was absolutely massive for me. I realised that girls are human too. It sounds so obvious now, but for 19 years of my life I really had no idea. Suddenly I was enjoying success with all the women in my life. All the information from my pick up artist manuals suddenly flooded my consciousness and I was able to analyse every social situation in the blink of an eye and remain in total control the entire time. I was thinking at top speed, like a super computer, and empathising to the point where I knew exactly how people were thinking and feeling. This was power. I felt omnipotent, as if I could manipulate my way into achieving whatever goals I desired. I was all of a sudden super-productive at work, getting far more done than I had ever before in the 12 months prior to this manic state. It was incredibly exciting.

I came to the delusional conclusion that I was God, and therefore did not need to sleep. I stayed awake for seven days straight, and begun to take much more Ritalin than I would have taken otherwise, to attempt to focus my mania and remain productive at work. In the evenings I would stay up all night thinking, philosophising, writing poetry and feeling amazing. This could not continue forever. At some point, I was going to crash.

“Pride Comes Before a Fall”

There is a biblical quote that is appropriate here:

Proverbs 16:18 RSV-CE

Pride goes before destruction,
    and a haughty spirit before a fall.

I was so completely full of pride, thinking that I was amazing, godlike, God himself. I thought I had discovered all the secrets of the universe: everything made sense to me. The French philosophy of Absurdity which was so dear to my heart seemed spot on and I could see it in action everywhere in life and reality.

However after 7 days straight of not sleeping and experiencing a severe and growing mania, I transitioned into a state of psychosis. Suddenly nothing made sense any more. Suddenly Absurdity seemed entirely contradictory. Suddenly my entire world-view was falling apart: I was grasping for something to hold on to and nothing came to my aid. I was not God; I was just some schmuck. My sanity was slipping between my fingers.

maxresdefault[1].jpg I was thinking to myself “I need help, who can I go to?” but no one was coming to mind. It was at this time that I became highly aware that I was completely surrounded by evil. I sent my thoughts out of my room and probed my flatmates. It seemed completely clear to me that all of my flatmates were evil, depraved and fundamentally untrustworthy. I extended my thoughts to the rest of my floor in UTS housing and came to the same conclusion: all of them were manipulative and selfish drug and sex addicts. Panicking, I extended my thoughts to the entire building: again, all I could find were evil, selfish people who would gladly sell me out if it meant they could get more sex and weed.

This was incredibly scary. I felt as if I were utterly surrounded by evil and there was nowhere I could run. Being an introvert, I decided to do what comes naturally to me: lock my door and hide in my room. Suddenly I thought back to all my interactions with Albert and I gasped as I realised that he had been playing me like a pipe. I had been his pawn as he manipulated me into doing drugs and used me as an unwitting wingman in his quest for sex. This was also incredibly scary – I felt as if I was caught in a giant spiders web spun by Albert and I felt as if he still had significant power over me. He started to seem like some sort of demonic incarnation in my mind. However things only got even more terrifying: I realised that I myself am also totally depraved, manipulative and selfish. I thought back to the previous 7 days of mania and assessed my behaviour: I had been manipulating people left, right and centre for personal gain and selfish reasons. I was just as evil as everyone else!

This was utterly traumatic and terrifying: there was nowhere I could run or hide – everyone was completely drenched to the core with evil, even me. I couldn’t run to my room, I couldn’t hide in my mind. No matter where I looked; no matter where I turned; all I could find was pure evil.

The Man in the Desert

2016024411desert_22_300[1]At this point of pure panic and terror, a strange idea suddenly lodged itself in my mind and would not go away: The story of Jesus in the desert, being tempted by the Devil. I had never seriously read the bible before, and I could barely remember the details of this story. However for some strange reason, it was firmly lodged in my mind and I knew with all my being that it was important: I needed to understand this story right now. I knew that it was somehow relevant to my current situation, but I was not sure in what way.

Still in a panic, I went to my bookshelf and found the NIV bible which my Christian mates had given me back in high school. I had a crude, basic knowledge of the structure of the biblical canon: I knew that the stories about Jesus are to be found in the New Testament, in the four Gospels. With this in mind I frantically flipped to the gospel of Matthew and began rapidly scanning the headings of the sections looking for the story about Jesus’ temptations in the desert. Thankfully, this story occurs early in the Gospel of Matthew and I was able to find it quickly. I ravenously read the story from beginning to end, and it made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. I didn’t know how to apply it to my current situation. It may as well have been written in another language.

At this point I completely and utterly freaked out and broke down: It was absolutely essential that I understand this story right damn now, and yet it was completely impenetrable to me. There were tears in my eyes and I was shaking. I thought to myself, “I need someone to help me understand this”. This logically lead to the question “who would understand the bible?” The answer that came to me was “Christians! They wrote the book so of course they should understand it!”

I cast my mind towards all the friendships of my past, searching for someone who was Christian that I could go to for help. This was not easy; I had met many Christians during my life, but all of them were total hypocrites, just as evil as me and Albert and everyone else. I was searching for the light on the hill: A Christian who is worthy of the name. There was only a single person who came to mind; the only true and faithful Christian I had ever met, my good friend from high school: Alex Macdonald.

The Only Saint I Know

I sent a text message to Alex, trying to keep it together and not let him know that I’m totally falling apart. I no longer saw him regularly, but I had caught up with him some time in the previous two weeks. Still thinking of how he really is a good Christian and so is his entire family, I sent something along the lines of “Hey man, how are you? You’ve got a pretty cool family don’t you?” He responded with “Yeah, I’ve been heaps blessed with family. I’ve gotta run to a soccer game now, catch up soon!” I immediately freaked out and begun to send him a barrage of messages thinking to myself “NO! I need to talk to you right now! Don’t abandon me to this isolation”

1531658_1For 45 minutes I sent him message after message, pouring out my heart and talking about how I was in a really bad state. I was lamenting about the relationship with my mother and extended family, my failures with girls, and all sorts of other things. I was telling him what a wreck I was and how my life was totally messed up. I told him about how I was searching for meaning in life and couldn’t find it anywhere. I mentioned that I want to read the bible but I have no idea how to do it: I had an intuition that it contained the answers to all my problems but it was an entirely cryptic and mysterious book which I had no idea how to approach. I said to him “I don’t know how to pray, so please can you do it for me?”

Eventually the soccer game came to the half-time break and Alex checked his phone. I can only imagine what he was thinking as he looked at the barrage of messages I had just sent him. He responded succinctly, assuring me that he would indeed be praying for me and that I needed to come and meet him ASAP for a face-to-face chat. He also made it clear that I needed to meet with my Mum and tell her everything that has happened.

At this point I was at the end of my rope and willing to entrust myself entirely to whatever Alex recommended with no complaint, argument or resistance. He really embodied the “light on the hill” mandate of the bible; he was like a light shining in the darkness that surrounded me. I wanted to do nothing but latch on and trust him to take me to a better place, dragging me out of the pit of evil and the lake of darkness that I had found myself in.

Coming of Age

family-730320_960_720[1].jpgI boarded the train from central to Hornsby. By this time it was late afternoon. Being out in the world, surrounded by other, sane people put me back into a relatively composed state of mind. You become the company you keep, so I was no longer completely freaking out. This was a lull in my psychosis.

I arrived at my Mum’s house and knocked on the door. The effects of the various drugs I had taken in the week prior were still present: I was high on empathy and thinking incredibly quickly. I knew in half a second that mum had been crying and was trying to hold it together. Obviously Alex Macdonald had gotten in contact with her before I had arrived to let her know that I was coming and to expect me to be in a bad state. I was happy that he had done so. He had also gotten in contact with many of my other high school friends to let them know I was having a rough time and encourage them to reach out and make contact. On the way to the house I had received a variety of text messages from old friends asking how I was doing and saying that we should catch up.

Me and Mum sat down at the dinner table and I poured out everything. For the first time in my life I was completely honest and open with my Mother. We were both crying, and it was a beautiful reconciliation between us that has largely persisted to the present day. Ever since that evening I have had a massively improved relationship with Mum.

During my late teenage years, and the first few years in UTS housing I had wanted to distance myself from my family and set off on my own. However it was suddenly incredibly obvious that you can never escape family, and you really shouldn’t even try. They will always be there for you and are the most important relationships in your entire life. Family is everything. This has been a significant change in my thinking that has persisted to the present day.

It was at this point that the pride came back. I thought to myself “I just fixed my relationship with my mother: I am the shit.”

The whole family went to our local Japanese restaurant for dinner. It was packed. Once again I was manic and the man of the moment. I was telling jokes, stories, flirting with the waitresses and generally manipulating everyone into forgetting that I was technically in the middle of a psychotic episode.

At the end of the dinner I received a text from Alex Macdonald on my phone saying “Hey man, how are you doing? I still want to talk to you face to face; are you able to meet up?” I convinced my step father to drive me to Pennant Hills where I could meet Alex and have a chat. When I saw him I said “Thanks for meeting me man, I hope I’m not imposing too much” and he said “Don’t worry dude, I can talk all night!”

Thus began the most important hours of my life.

The Long Walk

2[1].jpgThe next 11 hours were spent walking and talking late into the night and early into the morning. We roamed around all the north shore suburbs, having an intense debate about all the most meaningful questions in life. It was quite surreal: at no point did we ever encounter any other people during our long walk. It was just me and him.

I had never before been honest with what I actually believed and thought about life with anyone, but I figured “If honesty could so easily fix my relationship with Mum, perhaps if I keep it up good things will happen here too”: for the first time I was completely honest and open about what I believed and how I thought.

The pride had returned and entrenched itself in my mind. I was convinced that Alex Macdonald was just a stupid Christian who doesn’t know how to think for himself and just believes whatever nonsense his church, family and bible tell him. I was convinced that Absurdity was the answer to all of life’s questions. Nevertheless I had this openness and honesty about me for the first time, so I was willing to put my world-view up for scrutiny and engage in open debate.

Me and Alex had a very intense back-and-forth dialogue. I would try to attack his position and Christian world-view, but no matter what I tried he was able to successfully defend his beliefs against my assault. His world-view was tight, consistent, coherent. I was completely unable to put a dent in his faith, even after throwing the most difficult apologetics issues at him. Whenever I brought up something he didn’t have an answer for he simply said “I don’t know the answer man, but I’m sure that there is an answer out there somewhere and I’m happy to go and find it for you”. This was completely infuriating for me.

At the same time as I was attacking Alex’s position, he was criticising mine. Unlike my attack on him, his attack on me was entirely successful. On point after point he was able to reveal inconsistencies in my understanding and highlight incoherence in my belief system. On issue after issue he was able to demonstrate how illogical my world-view actually is. This hurt. When someone is tearing apart everything you believe before your eyes it is incredibly painful. Even though he was doing it in the most loving and “Christian” way possible, it was still a very unnerving and psychologically painful experience. The foundations of my understanding of life and reality were being slowly pulled out from under me and I had nothing left to stand on. As he progressively tore apart my world view, I reflexively lashed back and attempted to do the same to him, but I was simply unable to put a dent in his faith.

By the end of the eleventh hour of this, I only had one idea left: the concept of Absurdity. I had never before told anyone about this belief of mine. I said to Alex Macdonald, “So far you have been able to show me why everything I believe is wrong. I only have one thing left, and if you show why it is wrong I will have nothing left. If you do this, I don’t know what is going to happen.” He responded calmly with “No dramas man, I trust God, let’s do it.” So I told Alex what I believed about absurdity, and it wasn’t long before he was able to find a significant hole in the theory, thus pulling that out from under me too. (If I remember correctly, the hole in the theory that he identified is that it claims to know what God’s perspective is, but no one can know what God’s perspective is except for God himself)

All of a sudden I had nothing left, and things got incredibly weird.

The Twelfth Hour

My life flashed before my eyes. I saw every little thing I had ever done and the guilt of all my sins came crashing down upon me all at once. The significance of every action I had ever performed was laid out before me: all the good things I had done as well as all the bad things I had done. I could see clearly how my actions had affected those around me. I was lost for words and gasping for air. I became unable to speak in complete sentences. I was like an animal.

nov16-10-hbr-marion-barraud-emotional-intel[1].jpgAt this point I also experienced something that the Cantonese have a succinct expression for: “A thousand emotions at once”. I was simultaneously happy and sad, full of love and full of hate; I both wanted to hug Alex and choke him to death. I was simultaneously laughing with happiness and crying tears of sadness. I felt completely calm and composed, and yet I also felt totally and utterly terrified. I felt jealousy and contentment, joy and despair all at the same time. I was experiencing the entire emotional spectrum all at once.

The Uncreated Light of Tabor

At this point I looked at Alex Macdonald for support and I could tell that he had no idea how to handle this. I recalled his promise at the beginning of the night: “Don’t worry man, I can talk all night!” but it was obvious that this situation was beyond his capacity. He had a scared and concerned look on his face which said “I really don’t know what to do”. He said to me “You’re not giving me much to work with here man” and I said back to him through my tears “Words! I need good words!”

He began to list off a whole bunch of Christian jargon: “Gospel, Love, Faith, Worship, Beauty.” Every time he said a word, it was as if I had been struck by lightning. It was just so plainly obvious to me that yes, these are good words! I gestured to him with my hands and cried “More! Give me more!” He continued listing off words: “Justification, Sanctification, Divinity, Holiness, Sacrifice.”

As he continued to say these good words, suddenly my mind’s eye was flooded with a brilliant mental light. Once again I was lost for words and gasping for air. For the first time I clearly perceived the love of God. John 3:16 came to me and I fully appreciated it. Jesus loved me. He died on that cross for me. He didn’t just die for “the world” in some generic collective sense; he actually died for me personally. He still would have gone to the cross even if I were the only other person who had ever existed. He loved me that much. I didn’t fully understand how it all worked; all the theology and doctrines of redemption and atonement. But what I did understand, and what was incredibly clear to me at this point, is that Jesus really and truly loved me. I realised that I couldn’t just shrug this off: love demands a response. How was I going to respond to this man who had died for me?

346c3aacbb35f3c0c639c72fb91f6f6e--jesus-pictures-jesus-on-the-cross-pictures[1].jpgAs I considered the love of Christ, suddenly the true nature of the mystical church came crashing down upon me. I realised that the church is not merely a building or group of people: the church is everyone throughout history who has devoted their life to following Christ and submitting to his leadership. A mental image clearly materialised in my mind’s eye, with Jesus as the centre and head of the church and billions of his followers surrounding him, trying to follow his leadership. I saw that in this way, Christians are the body of Christ; his hands and his feet in the world. Jesus is alive in the world today through his followers.

Again I was gasping for breath and completely stunned by what I was beholding. I was face to face with a supreme, incomprehensible love, and before my eyes it was as if I could see this love working through history via the church – the mystical body of Jesus Christ. I turned to look at Alex Macdonald and once again was completely blown away: As I looked at him, I could clearly perceive God. It was as if he was glowing with an invisible light. I have since come to learn that this was the uncreated light of Tabor that is so dear to Eastern Christians, as well as the image of God that all humanity bears; usually it is hard to detect, but on this night it was clear and obvious. I felt as if I was staring directly at the face of Jesus Christ himself, permeated and glowing with the fullness of divinity.

I turned my attention back to my interior state of mind, which was still experiencing the full force of a life review and a thousand emotions simultaneously, and it suddenly became incredibly obvious what was going on: This was the Holy Spirit wrestling with sins and demons for possession of my heart. The hatred and sadness were my sins while the love and joy were the Spirit. When I realised this, I instantly knew who I wanted to win the fight. I was praying “Come Holy Spirit!” as this epic struggle continued to unfold in my heart and mind.

Conversion

At this point of the early morning, when it was still dark we were walking back to my house along Pennant Hills road. For those who are unaware, Pennant Hills road is incredibly busy at all hours of the day and night, however in a surreal twist of fate, this night it was completely empty. Just me and Alex walking along the road alone with each other. I was still completely freaking out and experiencing the interior struggle between the Holy Spirit and my demons, and Alex was still doing his best to manage the walk home.

By the end of the night, it seemed that the demons and sins had won the fight: I was full only with negativity; All the positive emotions had gone away. I wanted to slaughter Alex there and then. I wanted to pounce on him and rip out his throat with my fingers, I wanted to pound him into a bloody pulp. I was verbally lashing out at him in the most immature, condescending way. I felt as if I were possessed by demons. Perhaps I was.

Louisville%20creative%20driveway%20and%20path%20lighting[1].jpgFinally we arrived out the front of my mum’s house. Both of us were completely exhausted. Alex said “Man, I’m wasted and I’ve really gotta sleep, but before I go I want to pray for you”. He stood underneath a street light, closed his eyes and prayed. I paced around him at the edge of the light, wanting with all my being to pounce on him and destroy him then and there. Something stopped me from doing so however. I remember thinking “Who does he think he’s talking to? Does he really believe in this God? What a fool!” Quickly after the prayer his father arrived in the family car and picked him up, taking him back home for sleep and rest.

I trudged down the driveway to Mum’s house, full of negativity. I knocked on the door and was let in and led to the bottom bunk in my brothers room. I lay there, rolling around in bed. I thought to myself “If I do not sleep now, I am going to die”. The negative part of me thought “Why don’t you just do it? Go ahead and die.” But thankfully it was not meant to be. My step father is a doctor. Something within me said “Go and ask your step dad for help”. I went downstairs and woke my step dad. In many words I conveyed that I was having a panic attack. He could tell in any case. He rummaged through his filing cabinet and found a Valium.

1b4c7887790f565a92287901a34cb77e--sheep-the-lord[1].jpgWe went back upstairs and I took the Valium. As I did so, the negativity all quickly vanished and I suddenly felt safe, protected, blissful, encompassed in a cloud of pure love. I was extremely excited, but this was different to the mania I had experienced in the prior week: it was more “pure” and “innocent”. There was not a hint of pride. I was full of humble energy. I chatted away to my exhausted step-father, who sat in the doorway playing on his iPhone while he waited for the Valium to take full effect. Every few minutes he would consult the Valium cheat sheet and ask me questions to see if the drug was working. “Do you feel a metallic taste on your tongue?” “Yep”. I looked at myself in the mirror and it was as if I was glowing and all my signs of fatigue were receding away. I felt completely at peace and enveloped in love. I was safe at last. Most importantly, I finally believed! Even though I didn’t know what it all meant and how it all fit together, I finally trusted Jesus. I remember the last thing I said before I fell into the first deep sleep I had had in eight days: “Ah, so this is what they are talking about when they say ‘born again’!”

When I woke up the next morning I was a Christian, and I have never looked back since.

(Go to “Testimony – Christian to Catholic”)

Theodicy and The Problem of Evil – Speculations Concerning Origin and Destiny: “Why Did Satan Fall?”

The Problem of Evil

Problem of EvilThe Problem of Evil is probably the single most compelling objection that an Atheist can raise when confronted with an advocate for classical theism. If you believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God, the problem of evil has already locked on to you and loaded up an array of philosophical cruise missiles. Be prepared for an atomic blast; the problem of evil is one objection that has no easy answers.

The problem of evil is simply stated thus: How is it possible that there could be evil and suffering in a world where there is an all powerful, all knowing, totally loving God? Surely such a God would have the capacity to prevent such suffering and evil, as well as the wiles and power to do so.

In this post I propose to explore the problem of evil whilst drawing upon a variety of spiritual and philosophical traditions. Lets see where we end up.

The Origin of Evil

The usual Judeo-ChristianProblem of Evil explanation for the origins of evil is to be found in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. In summary, the claim is that humanity was originally created in a state of original innocence and bliss. However the serpent, representing the fallen angel Satan, tempted our first parents to disobey God. Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation, and as a result were immediately infected with sin and evil to the core. As a result, all humans since then have been stained by sin and tend towards evil.

This account is unsatisfactory on many levels. It raises more questions than it answers. For example it is completely unable to account for natural evils such as earthquakes and tsunamis – are we supposed to believe that such natural disasters are caused by human rebellion? Furthermore, this story merely postpones the initial question: Sure, this was the point when evil was introduced to humanity, but how on earth did Satan become corrupted in the first place? If Satan had not been evil, then he would not have tempted our first parents, and presumably all would have been well in paradise forever.

Christians have speculated on this question of the fall of Satan and come up with some interesting theories: There is the extra-biblical narrative of the war in heaven, during which a third of the angels fell from grace and became demons, following Satan. An account of this war and events surrounding it can be found in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. All of this is quite fascinating of course, however it still completely fails to solve the problem: Why was it that Satan was even able to fall and rebel against God in the first place? Didn’t God create everything in a state of perfection? If this is the case, how is it possible for anyone to turn against God?

Things start to sound even more suspicious and incoherent when you ponder the standard Christian eschatological views: allegedly we will be impeccable once we arrive in the perfection of heaven – if this is the case, then why were we not impeccable during our pre-fall perfect existence? What is different about perfection in the past and perfection in the future? If we could rebel in the beginning, then why can we not rebel in the end?

Why is it that Satan, a perfect angel, created with supreme knowledge of God, was able to make the irrational choice of evil? Where did that evil come from? How was he able to muster up such a bizarre choice? Why was evil even an option at all?

Ante Creatio Ex Nihilo

GoodEvil1[1].jpgWhere does evil come from? Why is it even an option at all? The Christian Tradition has not been forthcoming with answers to these questions about evil.

However there is a poignant teaching in the early church fathers that is relevant to the discussion: The idea is that evil has no existence or substance in and of itself. Instead all evil is merely the privation of good. Only good has true existence. At this point it is helpful to step back and draw on the Eastern Traditions of Philosophy, specifically, Taoism.

The second chapter of the Tao Te Ching is particularly illuminating:

When all the world recognises beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world recognises good as good, this in itself is evil.

Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other.

Therefore, the Sage manages his affairs without ado,
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.

And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

The idea is that of the yin and yang. Good cannot be defined except as in opposition to evil. Existence cannot be defined except as in opposition to Nothingness. Big cannot be defined except as in opposition to small. Opposites depend on each other.

I argue, that this principle was in effect prior to creation. Before God had decided to create “out of nothing”, this principle of yin and yang was in effect. Call God the yin, so what was the yang?

Let’s list out some of the attributes of God. God – the yin  is:

  • Omnipresent
  • Omnibenevolent
  • Omnipotent
  • Omniscient
  • Self-Existent
  • Personal
  • Relational
  • Love
  • Simple
  • Impassable
  • Essential
  • Immutable

Now, lets negate all these attributes and see what happens. The yang is:

  • Nowhere
  • Omnimalevolent
  • Impotent
  • Ignorant
  • Non-Existent
  • Impersonal
  • Desolate
  • Hate
  • Complex
  • Passable
  • Nothingness
  • Mutable

The Taoist argument is that it is impossible for the attributes of God to exist, without there also being some sort of reality to the negations of those attributes. In this way, the perfections of God stand in opposition to the imperfections produced by their negation.

The classical Christian view, is that God created the universe “ex nihilo” – which is to say – “out of nothing”. Now I would like to ask; what was this “nothing”? It would seem that before the beginning of time, there was God, and there was “Nothing”. Does this not sound strikingly similar to the yin and yang dichotomy? After all, one of the attributes in that last list is “nothingness”. It sounds to me as though before the beginning God existed, but alongside his existence there was the “non-existence” of nothing. And it is only for this reason that God was able to create. He needed raw material to work with, and nothing is what he found.

So lets tweak the classical Christian narrative with this yin yang distinction in mind: Before the beginning, there was God, and there was nothing: yin and yang. God is loving, and powerful and all knowing, whereas the nothing is evil and powerless and non-existent. The story of creation is that in which God works on this “evil” nothingness. God naturally overflows with creative love, and the love flows over and pours into the “evil” void that has no existence in and of itself. God creates space in the void, and fills that space with light and love and other aspects of his self.

According to this narrative, evil has always “existed” alongside God, as a negation of his perfections. I put “existed” in inverted commas, because of course evil does not have any true existence in and of itself, seeing as it is a negation of God’s perfections, and God’s perfections alone have true existence. So evil was always a “reality”, even before creation, because God could not be perfectly good without that perfect goodness being identified in opposition to total evil.

What is evil?

According to the Taoist narrative, evil is simply the opposition to good which necessarily has a reality, even if it has no existence in and of itself. Combine this with the Christian narrative that in the beginning there was God and nothing – this can easily be rephrased as “in the beginning there was good and evil”. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth “out of nothing” – bring the Taoist distinction to play and this sounds like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth out of evil”.

In other words Evil/Nothingness is the raw material from which God has brought about creation. Evil did not come into being at some point in the history of creation: Evil has always been around. Evil pre-exists creation (again, insofar as something “non-existent” can be said to “exist”).

Now, the Christian narrative goes further. The Christian claim is that God has not yet finished creating: we are currently in the midst of his creative act. The creation will only come to completion in the eschaton, the end times. Right now, we are in the thick of the action. This provides – in my view – a compelling explanation as to the source and origin of evil, as well as a partial solution to the philosophical problem of evil.

johndemoAn analogy is prudent: Imagine creation as a canvas, and imagine God as a master painter. In the beginning, the creation was blank, void, formless, non-existent, and according to the Taoist insights developed above, it was evil. This state is represented by a blank canvas. However God begins to fill in the canvas with paint and life and colour. This represents his creative acts. Wherever he paints, life and love follow. As time goes by, the canvas begins to fill in, however there are still many blank spots on the canvas, which have not been touched by the master’s paint brush. These blank spots are the remains of the original “nothingness” from which God initially begun to paint. As such, these blank spots represent evil. What do these blank spots correspond to in creation? They correspond to evil actions, sins, natural disasters, pain, suffering.

In other words, my theory is that evil, suffering and sin simply represents a part of creation in which God has simply “not filled in the blank area” yet. Evil has always been present, but it is slowly receding as God continues to work out the story of creation.

The amazing eschatological promise that is so dear to universalism, is that eventually God will fill in ALL parts of the canvas. In other words, evil will be completely done away with. There will only be God, and his beautiful, glorious creation which has filled the nothingness and done away with the evil void.

A New Cosmic Christian narrative

The narrative looks something like this: Pre-creation, history, eschaton. Pre-creation and eschaton are eternal states, and history is a temporal process that moves from the first state to the final state. History can also be thought of as a “curtain” which separates the first eternal state from the last eternal state.

In the Pre-creation, there was God and there was Nothing. God was perfectly good and nothing was perfectly evil. At the beginning of History, God created a reflection of himself in the nothingness and out of the nothingness, transforming it into a “created something” which derives it’s existence from God himself. As history progresses, God continues to fill in the creation, slowly chipping away at the evil which he finds continuing to permeate it. This is where we find ourselves today: We are in the midst of history, experiencing the full battle between good and evil, between God and sin. Sometimes we experience wonderful, ecstatic, heavenly bliss and goodness and pleasure – all of which are gifts from God. Sometimes we experience depression, desolation, evil and sin, all of which are the remains of the nothingness which God is currently in the process of wiping out through his act of creation.

Eventually, at the end of history, we will arrive at the eschaton. The eschaton is a state in which not a hint of nothingness remains: God’s creation is exhaustive and supreme. There is only Joy, and happiness, just as within God himself. No more natural disasters, no more evil, no more pain, no more suffering, only bountiful and overflowing love, joy and happiness.

Problem of EvilIn this way, the entire history of creation is simply a move from the state of evil pre-creation to the state of glorified eschaton. The Zoroastrian image of an eternal struggle between good and evil is apt to represent the situation, however the Christian twist is that good is predestined to victory over evil! In the end times, God will be victorious over the powers of darkness. At the present time we find ourselves in the midst of the battle between good and evil, however in the eschaton the war will have come to it’s conclusion, and the forces of good will be victorious, as God’s creation will have arrived at it’s final glorified state. The master painter will have filled in all the gaps in his canvas. The problem of evil suddenly doesn’t seem so hard to solve.

The Problem of Evil Again

Let’s return to the original objection raised by our hypothetical Atheist: If God is all powerful and all-loving, why does he allow suffering and evil?

The answer to the question, in light of all the considerations above is: he doesn’t!

God does not allow suffering and evil. In fact, God is in the process of wiping them out. If it weren’t for God, suffering and evil would be all that we ever experience, all the time. God is in the process of moving the creation from a state of nothingness, suffering and evil, into a state of glorified perfection in which not a trace of evil remains. The problem for us is that we are currently experiencing this creation from the perspective of the middle of history, rather than enjoying the final product. The final product will indeed be free of evil, but from where we are right now, evil is all around us, as a remnant of the origins/the initial state. The abolition of evil is therefore an eschatological promise that we eagerly anticipate. Rather than experiencing the final state, we are experiencing the intermediate states through which creation must pass in order to arrive at the glorious eschaton.

Problem of EvilA question still remains: How was it that Satan was able to fall into sin in the first place? Based on the speculations in this post, it would seem that evil was always an option. God created angels and humans with free agency – the power to choose between alternatives. And yet God mysteriously created us in the midst of history rather than in the perfected eschaton. As such, as rational agents we are able to choose to do evil acts as well as good acts. Satan must have flirted with the darkness, the nothingness, the evil, and absorbed it’s omnimalevolence into his soul. This was always an option. But God is in the process of defeating this evil once and for all. In the eschaton all evil will have been dealt with. God and his goodness will permeate the creation and not a single speck of evil will remain. Hell will be abolished, as it would have served it’s purpose. The problem of evil is finally solved.

What of the Taoist requirement that perfections be defined in opposition to imperfections? Personally, I suspect that this situation was necessary in the beginning, prior to creation. However I do not expect it is necessary in the eschaton. In the eschaton there is no need for opposition. There will be no nothingness, no evil, no despair, no desolation, no hate, no death. There will only be love, rejoicing, grace, glory, life. The story of history – the story of creation – is a story of movement from evil and nothingness to good and glory. We eagerly await the final days, free of suffering and filled with goodness. Thanks be to our wonderful God and saviour. Praise his beautiful promises and the plans he employs to bring them about.

Orthodoxy 101 – The Calvinist and Arminian Debate: Meditations on Freedom of the Will

In the fascinating debate between Calvinists and Arminians, the issue of “Freedom” is key. For Arminians, nothing could be more obvious than the reality of free will, and they find evidence to back up this intuition in the pages of scripture; while for Calvinists, nothing could be more obvious than the bondage and enslavery of our wills to sin and evil, and the bible clearly backs up this conviction.

I recently came to an understanding of both sides of the issue, and I suspect that the two parties are simply talking past each other: When they use the word “Freedom”, they are talking about two different things. When Arminians assert that we are free, they mean to say that we are “free agents”, who have the power of self-determination, control over our own actions, and the power to choose between alternatives. Whereas when Calvinists assert that we are not free, they do not necessarily mean to deny that we have free agency and self-determination; what they mean to say is that our wills are enslaved to sin and evil, such that – if it weren’t for the liberating grace of God – we would always perform evil actions and make sinful choices.

Arminians – Freedom as the Power of Contrary Choice

Fruits3[1].jpgThe Arminian (and Catholic and Orthodox) conviction that we possess libertarian freedom rests on the idea that in order to truly love, we must not be coerced into doing so in any way or on any metaphysical level. If we love, it is because we freely choose to do so, and not because God forces us to do so.

This conviction flows on into more philosophical territory. Arminians wish to assert that we have free/libertarian “agency”: that is to say, God’s sovereignty does not determine our actions and choices. Neither are our actions and choices determined by prior causes as per the philosophy of hard determinism. Instead, the principle which determines our actions and choices rests entirely within ourselves as individuals.

An example to illustrate the idea: A person is offered a variety of fruits at lunch time and informed that they can only choose one. The person deliberates and then chooses between one of the alternatives on offer, for example, a banana. This choice is neither random nor determined by outside forces – it is solely the person himself who brings about the choice of fruit – a banana rather than an apple or orange.

Some Calvinists take an extreme view of God’s sovereignty and blow the maxim “God is in control” way out of proportion. Such Calvinists would disagree with the Arminian analysis of the prior example and would instead claim that it is God who determines the choice of fruit, not the individual person. This would indeed amount to a flat denial of self-determination, free agency and the power of contrary choice. However not all Calvinists share this extreme view of God’s sovereignty.

Calvinists: “We have no Freedom” – The Bondage of the Will

Slavery-and-Sin-300x225[1]Most Calvinists, when pressed, would probably agree that humans possess free agency as defined above. However they would also emphasise their firm conviction that we do not possess free will. Instead of our will being free, our will is enslaved to sin, evil and the powers of darkness. The shorthand term “total depravity” is apt to summarise the situation. If it were not for God continually sending grace to us, we would always freely choose to sin rather than to love and do good. The more we sin, the more we become enslaved to that sin. And so if it were not for the action of God, we would simply descend further and further into evil and spiritual deformity.

Luther argued powerfully that our free agency, unassisted by grace, is unable to do good. Our free agency, left to it’s own devices, will always tend towards doing evil. Catholics dogmatically agree with this concept in the doctrine of concupiscence. Our wills are enslaved to sin. Our wills are in bondage to evil. The more we sin, the tighter the chains bind us.

In this way, humanity does not possess free will. We may very well have a free agency as the Arminians insist, in that our actions are not determined by God and our choices arise from within ourselves rather than being determined via divine sovereignty. Nevertheless our will is in a state of bondage. One component of the good news of the gospel is that God promises to liberate us from this slavery, and is in fact in the process of doing so. In the eschaton, our wills will be free again! In the end-times, our wills will be liberated from their slavery to Satan and the powers of darkness. However right now we are in the middle of the struggle, and this is why we sometimes sin and sometimes do good. The conviction here is that we are not free when we sin; instead, sin is a demonstration of our being in bondage to evil. On the other hand, when we love and do good, this is indeed a demonstration of a free will, or perhaps what is more accurately described as a liberated will.

Talking Past Each Other

p02yy74b[1].jpgWhen sacred scripture talks about freedom, it talks about it in these terms – bondage, slavery, liberation. It does not talk about it in philosophical categories of agency and determinism, regardless of whether or not those categories are true and useful. According to revelation, we are free when we do good and enslaved when we do bad.

Arminians often take their doctrine of freedom too far and end up insisting that humans have such a supreme and unassailable dignity to the point where absolutely nothing can have any influence on our choices, including the biblical concept of slavery to sin. The truth of the matter is that being enslaved to sin and suffering from total depravity does not nullify the fact that we are self-determining creatures who have the power to make distinct choices. All that it means is that the pool of choices that present themselves to us are always evil and sinful in nature, and this is the essence of the bondage of the will.

Whereas Calvinists sometimes push their doctrine of an enslaved will too far and end up denying that mankind has any free agency whatsoever. Such Calvinists put all their eggs in the “God is sovereign” basket and end up claiming that any experience of free agency is entirely illusory, because God himself is the one who is calling all the shots – including my “free” choices. Such Calvinists don’t understand that divine sovereignty does not necessarily contradict libertarian freedom. God is indeed in control, and he will succeed at bringing about the promised eschaton; nevertheless, he gives us true freedom and true agency, so that we can truly love him. He is not a divine puppet master pulling our strings.

A Middle Way

A middle path between the two extremes of Arminian “inviolable freedom” and Calvinist “Deterministic hyper-sovereignty” is helpful to examine. In this view of things, mankind does indeed possess the power of self-determination and free agency, as the Arminians insist, however our wills are also indeed enslaved to sin, as the Calvinists insist. All that this means is that we have free agency to choose between alternatives, however all of the alternatives that present themselves to us are sinful. In more traditional language, this is called “concupiscence” and “total depravity”.

FreedomNow, obviously the picture thus described does not accord with our experience of life and reality. The clear objection that presents itself is “I do not always sin, some times I love, sometimes I do good. I am clearly not totally depraved.” – This is quite true, and so some qualifications need to be introduced. Firstly, it is true that we do not always sin, however this reflects more on God than it does on us. The only reason we do not descend into a complete and entire depravity, is because our God is a God who delights in rescuing captives and freeing slaves. As such, God is always and everywhere sending us the sufficient grace we need in order to climb out of the pit of our sinto climb out of the pit of our sin and throw off the shackles that bind us to evil. The further we descend into depravity and evil, the greater the quantity of grace that God sends us. He is always giving us the opportunity and the means to turn from our sinful ways and repent, and all we need to do is give our consent.

What happens when we turn from sin and instead strive to do good? We become liberated. We finally possess the promised free will. God himself takes hold of us and shatters the chains that tie our wills to darkness and evil. Until God does this, our will is not free. The more and more that we consent to this liberation, and the more and more we cooperate with God’s grace, the more and more free we become. This freedom and liberation from sin could almost be seen as a slavery of another sort – instead of being slaves to sin, darkness, death, evil and the devil; we become slaves of love, righteousness, goodness, light and God himself. The theological traditions generally agree that in the end, we will be so enraptured by love that we will be impeccable – incapable of sinning. This is a paradoxical slavery opposed to the one in which we started, and interestingly, we call it the highest, most supreme form of freedom.

The Promise of Freedom

All of this considered, “free will” actually is just another eschatological promise that God makes to us. God promises us “freedom” as in “liberation”. Due to the fall, humanity would naturally be enslaved to sin. But God has always been fighting against this tendency, and he has always been attempting to liberate us from this slavery to sin. Insofar as we sin, we demonstrate slavery to sin, but insofar as we love, we demonstrate freedom to love. The promise of God is that one day we will be perfected in freedom; in other words, one day we will possess such a total liberation from slavery to sin that we will be impeccable. To the extent that we have faith in this promise, the promise actualises in our experience of life right here and now.

Of course, we still sin now, and this is evidence that God’s plans have not yet come to completion: Our God is a God who delights in rescuing captives from slavery, and he is in the process of doing this, and yet the fact that we still sin is evidence that God has not yet completed this process of liberation. The question is raised: can God fail to save us? Can God fail to deliver us from slavery? Can God fail to give us the freedom that he promises us?

FreedomThe answer that the Catholic Universalist gives is a firm and resounding NO! God’s promises cannot be thwarted. If God promises us true freedom and impeccability in the eschaton, then that is damn well what is going to happen. We are all of us in the midst of a battle at the present time; a battle between Satan and Christ; a battle in which we are all partially enslaved to sin and partially liberated for love. Sometimes we are made more or less enslaved. Sometimes we are made more or less liberated. But the promise of God is that in the end-times he will be victorious: No one will be enslaved to sin; everyone will be completely and entirely liberated for love. Israel will exit Egypt and find it’s way to the promised land, even if it takes 40 years of wandering in the desert to get there. So too, we will all have our freedom from bondage to sin, no matter how long it takes and even at the greatest cost to God – If Christ was willing to endure a crucifixion and descent into Hell for the sake of the world, how could he leave any one of us behind? All without exception will be liberated from slavery to sin. All without exception will be made righteous. All without exception will be cleaned from spiritual dirtiness. All without exception will walk out of the darkness and into the light. All without exception will see the gates of heaven and enter, singing joyous hymns and doxologies to our good and glorious God.

God gives us freedom so that we can love him, he did not give us freedom so that we could damn ourselves. Freedom is good news. Freedom is salvation. Freedom is Gospel. Let us pray for the salvation of all and praise God for his beautiful promises of liberation. Amen.

(Return to first article)

Catholic Moral Law and Theology – Sin and Same-Sex Marriage: It’s Okay to be Gay

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The results of the Australian postal plebiscite on same sex marriage were released today. To my surprise and disappointment (although with a healthy degree of amusement), the “Yes vote” won by 61%. The traditional media has run rampant with celebratory nonsense while social media has been flooded with victorious sentiment from the lefties. In light of this current atmosphere, now seems as good a time as any to set down my stance on the issues surrounding homosexuality in the modern day.

  1. Homosexual acts, are, always were, and always will be totally depraved and sinful. There is simply no escaping the biblical, magisterial, and divine testimony from Jesus himself, that homosexual acts are wrong and inherently evil. This is something that the Church is rightly insisting upon as crucial to the issue, and it is also something which the “yes vote” campaigners consistently (and conveniently) ignore.
  2. Sacramental marriage will always be between a man and a woman, and can never be between two members of the same sex. Sacramental marriage is the context in which sexual intercourse is supposed to occur, and therefore the context in which children happen. Sacramental marriage between a man and a woman is the essence of the family and the foundation of society.
  3. Same-gender sexual attraction is a disorder with it’s roots in the fall. It is unnatural and a sinful disposition. Nevertheless, no actual sin is committed unless a person who suffers from this disposition wilfully entertains lustful thoughts or wilfully engages in homosexual activity. Someone who has been born with same-sex attraction or has developed it later in life, nevertheless does not sin unless they indulge in their disorder and treat it as if it were just another normal impulse.
  4. Same-gender attraction which is non-sexual in nature is not sinful. There is nothing sinful about one man admiring another man’s body, or one woman acknowledging the beauty of another woman’s body. If someone is physically attractive, often this attraction exerts influence over people who share their gender: This is not sinful; this is not unnatural; this is merely human nature. Obviously there are problems if the body is being displayed immodestly or pornographically, as this encourages lust and tempts us away from mere attraction and towards sexual attraction.
  5. Love between two people of the same sex is not a sin, and is in fact encouraged by Christ, the bible and the Church. This is something that tends to go over the “No vote” party’s heads. When the “Yes vote” crowd are chanting “Love is love”, there is actually quite a lot of truth to what they are saying. Some times a same-sex relationship is close, intimate and loving to such a degree that it is more than a friendship. We need to acknowledge these relationships both as a church and as a society. Society needs to afford these relationships appropriate legal recognition, and Churches need to be willing to provide their blessings to these relationships. New liturgical rites need to be invented in order to publicly endorse and bless these profound, loving relationships between two men or two women.
  6. We also need to find some sort of term to describe the reality of this new situation. Personally I think the term “marriage” is inappropriate, as it carries over 3000 years of traditional, sacramental baggage. Perhaps something like “Consecrated partnership” would be appropriate: the two partners are religiously consecrated to each other and to God through their vows. These vows would look remarkably similar to marriage vows, or vows that monks and nuns take upon joining a religious order (importantly; there would be a vow of celibacy and chastity!). Nevertheless, the situation is not a sacramental marriage, and therefore something akin to a “divorce” would be a live possibility: Similar to when a nun is given a dispensation to return to normal life, or a priest requests to be laicized; and similarly to these cases, such a “divorce” would be strongly discouraged.
  7. Religious freedom needs to be upheld. If a business owner does not feel that they can provide goods and services to a gay wedding in good conscience, they should not be forced to do so. It is discrimination to refuse to serve someone because they are gay, but it is not discrimination to refuse to publicly contribute to a cause that you do not agree with: a Gay marriage today can easily be understood as a public statement in support of normalising homosexual behaviour; if as a business owner you do not agree with this public statement, you should not be forced to contribute to it.
  8. Priests, Pastors and Ministers can not and should not be forced to perform same-sex marriages. As per points 5 and 6, I think the church needs to make room for recognition of platonic same-sex partnerships which go above and beyond friendship. I think the church should give liturgical and official blessings to such relationships and canonically recognise them as a new form of consecrated life. However the church can never recognise same-sex relationships as being a valid form of sacramental marriage, because there can be no natural sexual relations between two members of the same sex, and therefore there can be no children (which is the primary purpose of a sacramental marriage).
  9. Assuming that some form of religiously consecrated same-sex relationship becomes recognised and endorsed by the church, perhaps one of the vows could be “to adopt and care for those who have lost their natural mother and father”. It is true that children have a right to be raised by their biological mother and father, however we find ourselves in a fallen world in which this simply does not always happen. Making one of the primary purposes of this new same-sex consecrated relationship to be the care and upbringing of abandoned children would actually be incredibly helpful for society, and could even serve as a live alternative for those who are seeking abortions.

Finally, I want to reiterate that homosexual acts are always sinful, and therefore even if the Church is so understanding as to recognise same-sex relationships as a valid form of consecrated life, the church can never endorse homosexual acts in the contexts of these relationships: Same-sex couples are prohibited by divine law from engaging in unnatural sexual intercourse and if they do so they must have recourse to the sacrament of penance with a firm purpose of amendment. Furthermore while the church can (and indeed, should) recognise same-sex relationships as a new form of consecrated life, it can never raise these relationships to the same status as a sacramental marriage between a man and a woman.

In essence the church needs to recognise love as love and sin as sin, and send a clear message on both these fronts: “You’re a guy who loves another guy? That’s fine and good and you have our blessing, just make sure you don’t have sex with each other!”

Orthodoxy 101 – The Calvinist and Arminian Debate: Idolatry of the Freedom of the Will

In Catholic, Orthodox and Arminian circles, “Freedom” often seems to be pushed as the central dogma of the faith. More important than the divinity of Christ; More important than the victory of the cross; More important than the all powerful, completely loving, salvation-intending will of God; Human “Freedom” reigns supreme. If we are not free to reject salvation, how can we truly love God? If we are not free to reject God’s loving, salvific overtures, where is our dignity as human beings? If we are not free to choose Hell, anathema sit.

My conviction and contention is that this popular view of “supreme libertarian freedom” essentially constitutes an idolatry of freedom and a perversion of Catholic dogma. I hate to see myself admitting it, but I suspect the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition actually has it mostly right when it comes to this matter of freedom.

In my own reading, I have encountered many authors who invite us to imagine freedom as a “scale”: One side of the scale represents a choice to perform some loving work, while the other side of the scale represents a choice to perform a perverse and sinful action. This image is incredibly useful for illustrating a variety of views on freedom.

Arminian / Catholic / Orthodox – Unimpeded Libertarian Freedom

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In the popular Catholic mind, humans possess a supreme and unassailable dignity in that we are free. When presented with a choice between good and evil, it is entirely up to the freedom of human subject to determine which alternative will be chosen. The human is completely impartial; his choice is completely uninfluenced; whatever choice is chosen will be determined by that persons freedom, and nothing else. The image is that of the scale previously described, in which one side of the scale is equally as appealing as the other side of the scale, and therefore the choice that is eventually chosen is determined purely by the whimsy of the human will.

This is libertarian freedom. When someone makes a choice, this choice is not determined by outside influences; it is determined purely by the agent who makes the choice. The interesting thing is that this libertarian view would appear to contradict Catholic dogma at a cursory reading.

Augustinian / Calvinist – The biased scale of Freedom

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It is a Catholic dogma that the fall lead to something called concupiscence in every human being who has ever lived. Concupiscence is essentially a tendency towards sin. Despite the fact that we are free, our human natures have been wounded such that we tend towards sin in everything that we do. It is an important philosophical point to establish that this tendency towards sin is not an external influence upon us; it instead arises from within ourselves, and proceeds from our very nature as human beings, and therefore it is not something that could be said to nullify freedom. As the Calvinists say: we are free to behave according to our natures, and if our natures are wounded and tend towards sin, then we are free to behave according to that nature and accordingly, we will almost certainly sin.

The image is that of the scale of freedom, as before, however that scale is now biased. Given any choice between good and evil we do indeed have the power and freedom to choose the good, however because of our wounded nature, the scale is biased such that we will in most cases tend towards choosing evil. The scale has a weight underneath the cup that represents the choice for evil; so while it is indeed possible for us to defeat this bias and do good, this is incredibly difficult to achieve due to the opposition we face via the bias given to the evil choice.

So in a sense we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influence is able to determine the choices we make. However that libertarian freedom is not “neutral”: it is instead biased towards sin from within due to our wounded human natures. This bias towards sin is called concupiscence within the Catholic tradition.

Arminian Grace – Equalising the Scale of Freedom

Kronk-listening-to-his-shoulder-devil.jpgThe Arminian account of the plan of salvation (as I understand it) is thus: Human beings were originally created with complete libertarian freedom, which is to say we were able to choose to sin or not to sin and this choice was not determined by any force outside of ourselves. However our first parents chose to sin by eating the forbidden fruit. One of the effects of eating the fruit was that we lost our libertarian freedom: now instead of being able to choose between sin and love, we always choose sin. Arminians (and Calvinists) call this “total depravity“. Our scales of freedom are biased towards sin. However the good news of the Gospel is that God has sent us his Holy Spirit, and this Holy Spirit is able to act as a counterweight on the scale of freedom, equalising the scale such that we regain our libertarian freedom. Now we are once again in our pre-lapsarian condition: we are able to exercise our freedom and choose between good and evil, unimpeded by any bias towards one choice or another. So the essential good news of the Gospel is not that God has saved us, it is that he has restored our freedom and therefore restored the opportunity for salvation.

Step back for a moment and consider the situation: It could easily be described as schizophrenic. The image is that of the demon and the angel sitting on each of the human’s shoulders, whispering into his ears and trying to influence him. The Holy Spirit acts as an equal counterweight to concupiscence. Yes, we have neutral libertarian freedom again, but only as a result of two competing vectors of equal magnitude pulling in opposite directions and equalising to a null vector. The human subject finds himself pulled in every direction at once, and as a result ends up going nowhere, with the final destination being determined purely by his will.

The end result is that both salvation and damnation appear equally appealing: The human subject has no compulsion to choose either way. As such, his choice is apparently “free”, although I would prefer to say that the choice is random, and randomness does not constitute freedom.

Calvinist / Augustinian Grace – Biasing the Scale Towards Good

saint-michael.jpgCompare this with the Augustinian/Calvinist understanding of the Gospel. In this account of events, the fall lead to a wounding of our human nature such that we tend towards sin. In other words, our scales of freedom are biased towards sin rather than good. However the good news of the gospel is that God has sent his Holy Spirit – not to equalise the scales of freedom, but instead to change the bias. So now instead of being biased towards evil, we are biased towards good! Technically we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influences are able to determine the choices we make, however the Holy Spirit has healed our nature, and not only healed it, but glorified it, such that rather than tending towards evil, we tend towards good.

The image is close to that of the Arminian account: There is an angel and a demon sitting on each shoulder of the human subject, whispering into his ear. However the angel is ultimately more persuasive, and tends to defeat the demon in debate. As such, the human person tends towards doing good rather than evil. Calvinists have historically referred to this as irresistible grace.

Universalism – A more nuanced view

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A common charge against universalism is that it nullifies freedom. I contend that universalism implies no such thing. I draw on the Calvinist/Augustinian understanding to explain my case.

We are free to behave according to our natures. If our natures are sinful, we will tend towards sin, but if our natures are glorified we will tend towards love and good works. The good news of the Gospel is that God is in the process of healing our natures, and not just healing, but glorifying them. That is to say, God is attempting to make us impeccable – incapable of sin. This is not to say that God is trying to take away our freedom to sin, instead he is simply removing any impulse within us which would tend towards sin. In other words we will retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom.

The Universalist eschatalogical vision is that in the end times God will have successfully defeated sin whilst safeguarding freedom. This is to say, we will all retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom. As such, we will only ever do good. However in the present time a battle is still raging – the Arminian vision of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on another is apt to represent the situation. We are in the midst of a battle between good and evil. Evil is powerful and will put up a fight, however we have a promise from God that God will have the victory.

The end result is that yes, in the present time we have neutral libertarian freedom: The spirit is battling with sin/concupiscence and it seems that they are equally matched. However the eschatalogical vision is that God will win the fight. Eventually we all will choose him, freely. Moreover, at that point, our natures will be completely healed and glorified – which is to say we will be impeccable; even though we are free to sin, we simply wont do it, and will instead always choose the good.

This vision is entirely glorious. God will not force us to choose him, but nevertheless we will choose him. Our freedom is safeguarded, our salvation is safeguarded. No one will be damned. Confronted with such a vision of the future, what can we do but explode in faith and hope, praising God and petitioning him to bring it all about? Let us love God and love his plans, praying for them and working towards them in love. God really is that wonderful; Salvation really is that beautiful. Thanks be to Christ for the total victory which he wrought at the cross. Amen

(Go to “Meditations on Freedom”)

Orthodoxy 101 – Catholicism and Sola Fide: Understanding Indulgences

IndulgencesIndulgences—speak the word and Protestants will immediately shake their heads in disapproval. Here we have a doctrine that definitively undermines the good news of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Anglican Articles of Religion describe indulgences as “repugnant to the Word of God.” The Westminster Confession describes them as a “cunningly devised fable, invented by designing men to impose upon the credulous, and to fill their own treasures.” In the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther states that “purgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil.”

It is plain to be seen that indulgences have acquired a terrible reputation. However they need not be so quickly rejected. The problem with indulgences is that they are almost entirely misunderstood. And not just by their opponents! Even many Catholic proponents of the doctrine often get indulgences wrong and end up pronouncing theology which does indeed serve to nullify the good news of the Gospel. I propose that the best way to interpret indulgences, is to look at them through the lens of reformation theology, specifically the doctrine of Sola Fide, and so interpret indulgences as merely another expression or aspect of God’s unconditional, salvific promise.

A Shift in Paradigm

IndulgencesAn Indulgences is defined in the Catholic Catechism as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions“. This definition betrays a very medieval understanding of theology, in that is talks about temporal “punishment”. The focus is very much on God’s justice here: sin leads to punishment but this punishment can be waived. It’s all very “legalistic” and the scene of a courtroom is apt to represent the situation.

In recent years, the doctrine of purgatory has shifted from a “satisfaction” model to a “sanctification” model in the popular mind. This shift is reflective of a more broad movement in Catholic theology away from the retributive paradigm of “Sin as a crime which deserves punishment” to a more remedial paradigm of “Sin as a sickness which requires healing”. In short, no longer are we thought to “pay for our sins” in purgatory; instead we are thought to be “purified of the spiritual dirtiness which has clung to our soul as a result of sin”. This is a welcome change, as it is more in accord with the image of God as a loving father who desires the best for his children, rather than the image of God as a wrathful and angry judge who demands justice in the form of brutal punishment for sin.

However this shift in the understanding of purgatory demands a corresponding shift in the understanding of indulgences. It simply does not make sense to say that “My soul is drenched in sin, however I have gained an indulgence, which means I don’t have to go through the hassle of purification and cleansing. My ‘temporal punishment’ has been remitted: God accepts me just as I am, warts and all”. This is nonsensical and contradicts the clear biblical principle that “nothing unclean will enter heaven”. The solution to this problem lies in the doctrine of the communion of the saints.

The doctrine of the communion of the saints states that we are all mystically joined to Christ and each other. This union is much closer than we realise in our day to day experience. The union is in actual fact so close, that the purifying effects of my penances flow between all the members of the church, such that they do not purify my soul alone, but instead serve to purify all of humanity. Likewise, the infinite penances of Christ, Mary, and the saints flow around the entire church. In this way, my soul can be cleansed by the penances of other people. I do not have to personally make temporal atonement for my sins; I do not have to clean myself; instead, Christ has the ability to clean me directly apart from any penances which I may attempt, by simply applying the infinite penances of the communion of saints to my soul. All that I need to do to allow this to happen is to willingly consent to the cleansing through faith.

With this in mind, Indulgences can be reinterpreted as “A soul being cleansed of it’s sinful dirtiness directly by Christ, through the superabundant penances of the communion of the saints, apart from any penance directly undertaken by that soul”

Indulgences as Promise

13729201_1197343756962644_642610664857631023_n.jpgWe have already seen in this series that God makes a variety of unconditional promises to humanity (or one single promise with many aspects). A summary:

  1. God promises us that we are Righteous (Justified), right here and now, because Christ lives within us. And therefore we need not fret and feel spiritual angst about being a bad person.
  2. God promises that all of our sins are forgiven, both past sins and future sins. Therefore we do not need to feel guilty about any of our moral failings
  3. God promises that we are predestined to heaven. Therefore we do not need to fear being stuck in a state of alienation from God forever. We do not need to despair at the prospect of walking in darkness for eternity. We can have an invincible Hope that we will eventually achieve beatitude.

Now, it seems to me that indulgences are just another unconditional promise that God makes to us. This promise states “You are clean, because Christ has cleaned you; You are perfect, because Christ has purified you; No temporal punishment for sin remains”. In biblical language, we have been washed in Christ’s blood, which is to say that the superabundant sufferings of Christ function as a penance which are applied to all souls in order to cleanse them from all stain of sin. Mary and the saints are able to add their penances to Christ’s sufferings and in this way participate in his passion, however this is not strictly necessary because Christ’s blood is sufficient to clean the souls of the entire world, nevertheless it is a great honour to be united to Christ in such a way that we participate in his salvific work and mission.

It is important to note, that just like the other three promises, the promise of indulgence is Universal and Unconditional. That is to say, God implicitly speaks the promise to every individual who has ever lived, even if they do not explicitly hear the promise spoken to them during life. Again, like the other promises, it is helpful to have this Universal promise personalised and spoken directly to someone. This is where the idea of “Indulgences as promise” intersects with the traditional doctrine.

Indulgences and Sacraments

Extreme_Unction_LACMA_AC1994.171.5-56a1083c3df78cafdaa83428[1]Sacramentally, the promise of a plenary indulgence is spoken during Baptism and Last Rites. When we are baptised, we are “washed completely clean”. This is an indulgence by another name. Just as with the other promises of God, this promise of indulgence is received “by faith alone”. The degree to which the promise takes effect in my subjective experience of life, is determined by the degree to which I respond to this promise in faith. God says “You are clean”, and I believe, and therefore I experience cleanliness. On the other hand God says “You are clean” and I doubt, and therefore I experience dirtiness.

This experiential situation carries on into the afterlife and takes the name “purgatory”. If you have a perfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then when you die you will not experience purification, because the promise of God is that there is nothing left to purify: he has already purified you. In this way you “escape the punishment of Hell”. If however you die with an imperfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then you will enter into the Hellish torments of Purgatory. The degree to which you doubt the promise is the degree to which you are tormented. As all the sins of your life are laid out before you during the particular judgement, you behold your past crimes and perceive them as staining your soul. You are tormented by your sins. All that needs to be done to escape this situation is to hear the promise of Indulgence and throw yourself upon it completely in faith. You must repent by turning away from these sins and trusting the promise of Christ that “you are already clean”. Once you realise that you are already clean, the torments will cease and be revealed to have been completely illusory the entire time.

“Earning” Indulgences?

IndulgencesSimilarly to how it is useful as life goes on to have the promise of Justification which was spoken in Baptism reiterated in the Sacrament of Confession, so as to more easily place our faith in it; so too it is useful to have the promise of Indulgence reiterated many times throughout our life, so that we can more easily place our faith in it. This is where the traditional system of “Indulgences attached to works and prayers” comes into play.

To recap: a perpetual plenary indulgence is granted to everyone at all times and in all places. This indulgence takes the form of the scriptural promise that “we have been washed and sanctified by the blood of the lamb. We are completely clean, right now”. However it is useful to have this promise spoken to us personally, so as to allow us to receive it in faith. This is why there are many prayers and actions which are attached to the idea of indulgences.

The most important of these actions are the sacraments of Baptism and Last Rites. However there are many minor prayers, actions and pilgrimages which have indulgences attached. These need to be understood not as “doing a work so as to earn an indulgence”, instead they need to be understood as “demonstrating faith in the promise of Indulgence by concrete actions”. An example: someone who goes on a spiritual retreat for three full days is granted a Plenary indulgence. This does not mean that this person has “earned” the indulgence, instead it means that this person has demonstrated faith in the promise of Indulgence by his actions. At the end of the retreat, the promise of Indulgence is explicitly spoken. It was always implicitly spoken, however it is useful to have this promise explicitly reiterated, so that we may more easily anchor our faith in it. In this way indulgences are similar in purpose to the sacraments.

To summarise, the Promise of Indulgence is unconditional, universal, and perpetual. The works attached to indulgences do not “earn” indulgences, they are simply concrete ways in which faith in this promise is demonstrated. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “partial indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a “partial faith” in the promise. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “plenary indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a total faith in the promise.

The Final Assault of Satan

220px-Hieronymus_Bosch_013[1].jpgThe main purpose of Last Rites, or Extreme Unction, is to sacramentally speak the promise of Plenary Indulgence to a soul right when they need to hear that promise most. The soul is about to go through the process of dying. As we pray in the Hail Mary, “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death“. It is a common theological opinion that Satan will make a final assault on a soul who is dying, in the last moments of their life, while they are at their weakest. He will try to drag the soul down into doubt and despair concerning the promises of God. The Devil will do his best to tempt the soul into a state of subjective damnation by attacking their faith. Meanwhile Mary, Christ and all the angels and saints are praying and interceding and doing intense battle with the Devil and his demons. Spiritual warfare is waged over the dying soul.

The sacrament of Last Rites prepares us for this final battle by reiterating the promise of Indulgence to us so that it is fresh in our memory. The last thing that we hear before slipping away into this terrifying process of dying is the promise of God that we are clean. This is essential. Because the Devil is going to swoop in in those last moments and taunt us by saying “You are dirty. You are Guilty. Look at all of your sins. You are going to be damned for sure”. In the face of these taunts, we need to be able to throw ourselves upon the promises of God which instead say “You are clean. You are perfect. You are righteous. Christ lives within you. You are predestined to Heaven”: it is much easier to do this if we have the promises fresh in our memory.

In this way the sacrament of last rites gives us strength to face the process of dying, by reiterating the unconditional promise of God right when we need to hear it most.

Penance is Supererogatory

IndulgencesSomeone who depends on penance on order to be clean is simply doing it wrong. This is another manifestation of the “salvation by works” mindset. Objectively, their works of penance do indeed contribute to the cleansing of themselves as well as the other members of the church via the mystical union in the communion of the saints. However, if they do not have faith in the promise of Indulgence that they “are clean, right now, and have been completely washed by the blood of Christ”, then subjectively they are going to experience dirtiness, damnation and condemnation. In this way it is once again a case of “salvation by faith alone”. The way in which the promise becomes active in their subjective experience of life is through faith in that promise. People do not experience cleanliness by doing works of penance, people experience cleanliness by completely trusting in the promise of Indulgence.

An important consequence of these reflections on Indulgences, is that they make penance completely supererogatory (An action is supererogatory if it is good to do but unnecessary). When someone goes to the sacrament of confession and receives absolution, the priest will also specify some penance that needs to be performed. Strictly speaking, this penance is unnecessary and all that is really required in order for the soul to be clean is for that person to place their trust in Christ’s perpetual promise of Indulgence. However the church in her wisdom has decided that penance is spiritually beneficial. In this way, even though penance is a supererogatory act, the church mandates that we do some penance after confession of our sins.

Interestingly, all penance is supererogatory, because Christ’s passion was enough to secure a cleansing of the entire human race. Nevertheless it is a beneficial spiritual exercise to engage in acts of penance. The harm comes when people think that they must perform acts of penance in order to be saved. This will lead to spiritual angst and there are many testimonies of ex-priests and ex-monks who experienced exactly this spiritual angst and it drove them to abandon the faith. Instead we must understand all penance as being supererogatory: Our salvation and escape from the fires of Hell/Purgatory does not depend on the amount of penance we do. Instead it depends entirely on Christ and is subjectively apprehended by faith in Christ’s promise of Indulgence. Faith is the key to a subjective experience of salvation in every respect.

Beautiful Promises

christus-victor[1].jpgTo summarise, an Indulgence is not something which you earn by works and prayers. Indulgence is instead the promise of God that “you are totally clean, right now”. This promise is apprehended by faith alone, and that faith is demonstrated by the works and prayers which have indulgences “attached” to them. In this way, you do not need to work your way out of Hell or Purgatory by many and varied acts of penance: Christ has already done that for you and all you need to do is trust him.

God makes a variety of wonderful promises. “You are clean, you are righteous, you are Justified, you are forgiven, you are predestined, you will persevere”. He speaks these promises to us personally in the sacraments. We apprehend these promises by faith alone and by faith these promises invade our life and enrich it, leading to an experience of heaven on earth; salvation here and now. These promises are unconditional, which is to say they depend on God rather than us for their fulfilment. And God, being omnipotent and omniscient, is able to actualise these promises despite any resistance we might throw at him. In this way we can have invincible faith, confident hope, overflowing joy and untameable love: we can experience salvation right now. All praise be to Christ the king, who was victorious over Hell, abolished death, defeated the Devil, conquered sin. We have an amazing future to look forward to, hope for and pray for. God promises it and God guarantees it. What else can we do but have faith and rejoice?

(Return to first article)

Orthodoxy 101 – Christianity and The Glorious Gospel

What is the Gospel?

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What is the Gospel? This is a tougher question than most people seem to realise. As Christians we are called to “Proclaim the Gospel”. It is our core mission to the world. And yet the definition of what exactly it is that we are supposed to be proclaiming is quite elusive.

It is helpful to look at the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”. It is an old-English word which means “Good news”. So what is the good news? Traditionally, the good news has been summarised as “Jesus is risen!”. So far all Christians are in agreement. However why exactly is that “Good news”? What difference does it make to my life? It is in answering this derivative question that most, if not all denominations and expressions of Christianity go astray.

The good news as it pertains to me and my life, takes the form of an unconditional promise. This promise has two aspects: present and future. In the present, the promise says “You are righteous and you are saved, right here and now, and there’s nothing you have to do to make it so.” In the future, the promise says “You will not suffer everlasting damnation and you are going to go to heaven, and ultimately there’s nothing you can do to prevent this from happening“.

Once this promise has been spoken, the listener will have one of two responses: Faith/Trust/Belief in the promise, or Apathy/Disbelief/Outrage. If they have the positive response of Faith, this faith will inevitably lead to joy, and this joy is itself a direct subjective experience of salvation in the here and now: This joy is an experience of heaven on earth.

It is important to note that the promise is unconditional. This means that even if the listener does not believe in it, they are still saved because God keeps his promises. An important aspect of the fact that this is an unconditional promise is that it depends entirely on God: We do not have to do anything to “earn” it, and there is nothing we can do to mess it up. God keeps his promises and he will have the victory, even if we resist him.

This then, is the “Good news” of the Gospel as it pertains to my life. It is an unconditional promise from God which says “You are saved right now and there’s nothing you have to do to earn it, and you will be saved in the future, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do which will prevent it from happening.”

The Gospel Promise of Love

Forever-and-ever-alice-and-jasper-fanfics-13158494-240-320[1].jpgSomeone could have this wonderful promise spoken to them and be completely baffled as to the details. “Why am I saved right now?” they might ask. “Why will I certainly go to heaven?” At this point it helps to elaborate on aspects of the actual Christian narrative.

The reason that we are all saved right now, is because Jesus loved the world so much, that he paid for the sins of all humanity by willingly dying on the cross and descending to Hell and suffering all of it’s torments. Jesus took the full punishment for our sins, so that we don’t have to. He took a bullet for us. He didn’t just pay for the sins of a couple of people, he paid for the sins of the entire world. In Christ all sins have already been punished. Now no punishment remains. Furthermore all humanity has been “justified”, which is to say every single human being is united to the resurrected Christ, and has had the perfect righteousness of Christ poured into their souls, such that they transition from being sinners to being intrinsically holy and righteous. In this way, the whole world has been saved from condemnation and damnation, and furthermore the whole world is united to Christ and lives in him. Because Jesus defeated death by his resurrection, every individual without exception has also defeated death through Christ, and therefore every individual without exception is “saved”: Not only do we not need to fear Hell thanks to Christ’s atoning sacrifice of love, we can also joyfully experience becoming new creations thanks to Christ resurrection!

Note that this story is universal and entirely by Grace: you don’t have to do anything, whether it be “believing” or “loving” or “works” or “obedience”. You don’t have to do anything. The story applies to everyone: Muslims, Atheists, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Hitler, Walt Disney, Muhammad, Me, You, My family, Your family etc etc. The entire world has been objectively saved by Christ’s death, descent to Hell and resurrection. This is why an evangelist can simply tell the story to an unbeliever with no “ifs, ands or buts”. All that needs to be done is to say to someone “You are saved!” and then pray that the Holy Spirit will cause that person to respond to the promise with faith. But again, the promise does not depend on that person having faith: even if they disbelieve the promise, they are still objectively saved by Christ. The only difference is that they have no “experience” of this salvation and therefore they could be said to be still “walking in darkness”: Objectively they are saved, but Subjectively they are still experiencing the old state of affairs: damnation and alienation from God. This is why we must evangelise. We need people to become aware of the promise that God speaks to them so that it may become activated and alive in their experience of life.

Moving on to the future aspect of the promise. The reason that we will all eventually get to Heaven, is that the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts. According to scripture, the Holy Spirit serves as a “Guarantee of our inheritance”, which is to say “a promise that we will arrive in Heaven”. Someone who has the Holy Spirit therefore is predestined to heaven. Of course, God gives us freedom to resist him. We are able to resist him such that we get stuck in a state of afterlife purification indefinitely. However the promise of the Holy Spirit is that this simply is not going to happen: If you have the Holy Spirit, you WILL walk the path of salvation all the way to the end. God guarantees it. This is the doctrine of predestination. Predestination does not mean that all of our actions have been predetermined by God, predestination simply means that God promises never to give up on us. He will never leave us or abandon us. He will stick by us in the form of the Holy Spirit until we arrive at the fullness of salvation.

Again, this story is universal. Whoever has the Holy Spirit has received this promise of predestination. Arguably we all have the Holy Spirit, and so we are all predestined! And again, this narrative is entirely by Grace: God guarantees us a positive outcome and even though we may resist him, ultimately we will not rebel against him forever. Again, when evangelising all that needs to be done is to speak this promise: “You will not be damned forever. You are going to get to Heaven”. This aspect of the promise generates a strong Hope and assurance. When times are tough, and someone is drowning in sin which they feel unable to defeat, they can throw themselves upon this promise from God and say “No matter how bad things get, they are going to get better; No matter how much I fall into sin, eventually God will deliver me”. This promise therefore serves as a guard against despair in the life of the Christian.

Note that at no point in the discussion have any conditions been stated. The promise is well and truly unconditional! We do not have to do anything in order to be saved right now and have our place in heaven secured: God has done it all and God will do it all. Salvation is completely and entirely by Grace… and yet in that act of Grace we remain completely and entirely free. This leads to a more sobering aspect of the Gospel promise.

The Gospel Promise of Justice

E047_Purgatory[1].jpgOne aspect of the Gospel promise is that Justice will be done. Everything good we do will be rewarded, and everything bad we do will be punished. Hitler will be made to experience all the misery that he caused during his time on earth. Fathers who beat their children will have the situation reversed and they will experience the fear and terror that they have caused their children directly. Rapists will have their souls crushed proportionally to the harm they caused their victims. Murderers will experience the pain that they bestowed on others.

To some people, this aspect of the promise is comforting. Someone whose mother was raped and murdered by rampaging Muslim Jihadis will inevitably be crying out to heaven for justice. God promises that this justice will be done: those Jihadis will be made to pay. To most people, this aspect of the promise is incredibly sobering: Just because Jesus paid for all my sins, does not mean that I can just indulge in sin with no consequence. There will be punishment for every moral mistake that we make. This punishment will be terrifying, infinite, and experienced as everlasting. This punishment is Hell.

How does this “Justice” aspect of the promise mesh with the “Grace” aspect of the promise? For one thing, heavenly rewards do not decay. Every good thing we do will be rewarded in heaven and those rewards will last forever. On the other hand, our sins can be burned away and we can be left spotless as if we had never sinned at all. This is what happens in Hell. The horrible punishment of Hell will lead to wilful repentance, and this repentance will lead to the sins being purified and burned away. Eventually, once we have repented of all of our sins, the punishment will cease (even if it subjectively feels like it lasts forever).

The second, future aspect of the Gospel promise applies here. Another way of wording it is “Even if you go to Hell, you still have the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is a promise that God will rescue you from damnation. You will not be stuck in Hell forever. Eventually God will get you out”

This promise could be exploited for laziness and laxness, in which case the scary side of the promise needs to be emphasised: “If you do not repent, you will go to Hell, and you don’t want to go to Hell because it is the worst possible experience you can have and what’s more, it feels like it is everlasting!”

Note that this promise is not unconditional: It depends on our free response. If we do good, we are rewarded. If we do bad, we are punished.

Where people get the Gospel wrong

worksalvation[1].pngPretty much everyone who gets the gospel wrong, does so because they either restrict the universality of the message in some way, or they change the promise from an unconditional one to a conditional one.

Arminians, Catholics and Orthodox

Catholics commonly screw up the message by saying that God “offers” us salvation. Modern Catholics will wax poetic about God’s grace, how God loves everyone and wants to save everyone and how we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation, but then at the last second they will turn around and say “But God gives us free will, and we need to use our free will to accept God’s offer of salvation, otherwise we will be damned”. What a terrible Gospel! No longer does God promise me salvation; instead he merely offers me salvation. In the final analysis whether or not I am saved depends entirely on me and my efforts to accept salvation. This leads to perpetual spiritual angst, despair, depression as I am constantly asking myself “Have I accepted God’s offer?”. And God help you if you commit mortal sins! “Oh God, I’ve screwed up. I just had sex with my girlfriend again. I’m going to Hell if I don’t get to confession ASAP”. All of a sudden you have a terrible fear of death because if you were to die in the state of sin this would send you off to Hell forever and ever.

Calvinists

Calvinists get the Gospel wrong by altering both the unconditionality and the universality of the message. Calvinists claim that faith is a condition for salvation: if you do not have faith, you are not saved and will go to Hell. This leads to spiritual angst of another kind, as people are constantly asking themselves “do I have true faith?” What’s more, Calvinists restrict God’s love only to a select few people. God does not desire the salvation of everyone, he only desires the salvation of a couple of people who he chose for no particular reason before creation. He desires that everyone else suffer everlasting, brutal, horrible torture in Hell. In this way Calvinists are worshipping a purely evil God. Calvinism cannot even rightly be called Christianity. Calvinism is Satanism and all Calvinists are Satanists. All Calvinists without exception will be brutally punished in Hell and the Saints in Heaven will rejoice and praise God for his glorious and righteous justice as they enjoy the spectacle. Lucky for these horrible Calvinists the one true God does not deal in “everlasting” punishments, and so even disgusting, depraved individuals such as Calvinists will eventually repent of their heresies and blasphemies and achieve salvation.

Evangelicals

Evangelicals in general mess up the Gospel by adding conditions to it, which in turn serve to limit it’s universality. They say that you must “accept Christ” if you want to be saved. They say that you must “have faith”. You must “believe in God” or “trust in Jesus”. Decision theology is popular in this camp: you need to actively make a choice for God in order to be saved. If you do not do these things, then you are damned forever. Again, the same sort of spiritual angst comes into play as with the Calvinists. “How do I know that I have true faith?”, “How do I know I have chosen God?”

Of course certain Evangelicals are not troubled by such questions in the slightest. They have fully convinced themselves that they have enough faith and have chosen God adequately. They believe that they have fulfilled the conditions for salvation. These people are Pharisees. Every single one of them without exception is depending on their own efforts in order to be saved. As such they are puffed up with pride and superiority. They look at their unbelieving neighbours and think to themselves “Gee, I’m glad I’m not that guy. Thank God that I’m saved!”

If the Evangelical in question has a Christian family, he is less likely to care about the salvation and damnation of others. As far as he cares, everyone he knows and cares about is going to heaven. Too bad about those other poor souls who are going to be damned forever. “I’ll just be happy that God chose me and my friends and family. Too bad about those other suckers who didn’t believe in God before they died!”

However if the Evangelical in question is a convert from a non-Christian family, this Gospel is absolutely soul crushing: “Ok, God saved me, but what about my brothers and sisters? What about my mother and father? What about all my unbelieving friends”. The only answer that this gospel gives is that “their salvation depends on YOU”. All of a sudden, the weight of the salvation of this person’s entire family falls squarely onto that person. The person will feel like it’s up to him to save his family. If they are damned, it is his fault. If they die before showing any signs of faith, this person will feel utterly crushed and defeated. No longer is the Gospel good news to this person. Now the gospel becomes a terrible message of complete destruction and eternal torment for the people who that person loves most. A lot of people have a crisis of faith at this time. They are simply unable to continue singing songs of praise and worship to a God who would allow this to happen. Some people abandon the faith. Some people suffer intense mental anguish and go through intellectual contortions until they “accept that God is sovereign” and then they continue to bow down and worship him despite the overwhelming evidence that he is a total uncaring monster.

The Gospel Promise of Grace

chinese-717356_640[1].jpgThe Gospel as it was outlined at the beginning of this post is the only true Gospel. It is a completely unconditional promise which is universal in scope. This promise can be spoken to anyone with conviction. An evangelist can walk up to anyone and say “You are saved and you will go to Heaven!”. If the hearer of this promise responds with interest, the evangelist can continue to tell the story of Jesus. As the story is told, the faith of the listener may grow, and blossom into an experience of salvation right here and now. That person will transition from walking in darkness to walking in light, as they place their trust in the promise and absorb the salvation which it promises. And the amazing thing about this promise is that it still applies; it still will come to pass, even if the listener rejects it or has doubts. For this is the nature of an unconditional promise: it does not depend on the response of the listener. God will bring it about. This is the essence of Grace.

Now, God implicitly speaks this promise to everyone without exception. Even those people who lived before Christ. No one is excluded from his salvific love and salvific will. However it is helpful to have God’s promises spoken to us personally as individuals. This is why we have the sacraments.

Baptism

Baptism is the sacrament in which God says to the sinner “You are righteous and all your sins are forgiven, even those which you haven’t yet commit”. This provides an extremely tangible promise for a Christian to place their trust in. Whenever they sin, or feel despair at the state of their soul, they can think back to their baptism and remember the promise of God that was spoken to them personally at that time.

Confirmation

Confirmation is the sacrament in which we receive the Holy Spirit. As such, it is a sacrament in which God makes the promise of future salvation. In Confirmation, God says “I will never leave you. I will never abandon you. I am going to get you to Heaven”. In this way, whenever a Christian is finding themselves in a stage of life where they are bogged down in sin and utterly failing to repent, they can think back to their confirmation and have hope, thinking to themselves “God is going to get me through this. This is not going to last forever”. As such this sacrament is a great guard against despair.

Confession

Confession is a sacrament which repeats the promise that was spoken during baptism. As such it is not strictly necessary, although it is mandated by church law in the case of mortal sin. In confession, the promise of baptism is repeated: “You are forgiven, you are righteous”. This is helpful because as time goes by, our baptism becomes less vivid in our memories, and the promise that was spoken to us fades into the past. In this way it becomes helpful to sacramentally renew the promise so that it is fresh in our minds. This is also appropriate for the reason that as time goes by and the promise of baptism fades in our memory, the promise is less active in our mind, and so when we commit mortal sins we experience subjective guilt. This guilt is unwarranted seeing as we have already been objectively forgiven of all of our sins, past, present and future. In this way having confession available helps us to remove any unwarranted guilt, by speaking the promise of Baptism to us afresh and giving us a word to place our trust in which is closer to the present time. Someone who has a strong faith obviously does not need to go to confession, however it is always helpful to hear God’s promise spoken, and so it is wise to go to confession whenever someone commits a mortal sin.

Universalism is the only Gospel worthy of the name

6506502553_006c1eb79b_b-700x450[1]The true and glorious Gospel, is that God loves everyone, he has saved everyone, and he will save everyone. No one will be excluded from his love and salvific will. The future will be wonderful, truly something to look forward to.

This is a promise that can be spoken to anyone with utter conviction. It is unconditional and doesn’t depend on us in any way. People who hear it and believe it will have a strong experience of salvation right now. This is what evangelism is about: Objectively we are all saved and we are all going to heaven. However subjectively not everyone realises this. God uses us to preach his promise of salvation and so bring people by faith from the darkness into the light. Part of the promise is that eventually everyone will move from darkness to light. We participate in the fulfilment of that promise by our preaching and evangelism, however it does not depend on us in any way. God will fulfil his promise to save someone regardless of whether they hear us preaching. It’s just that they might spend a longer time wandering in the darkness.

Of course, we do not know with infallible certainty that this promise will come to pass. This is why we must pray continuously for the salvation of ourselves and all other people. We must have faith and hope. But surely we will overflow with faith and hope when we consider who it is we are placing our faith and hope in: Jesus Christ; God made man, who loved us so much that we was willing to die and suffer Hell in our place, who was resurrected from death to life and ascended into Heaven; who sent the Holy Spirit as a promise that we would be saved. When you fully appreciate this, it’s not that hard to love him back, is it?

(Go to “Understanding Indulgences”)